Vol. 11, No. 12

In This Issue
  • SAVVY, SKILLS & STUMP THE SHRINK : A combined “conversation” on working with mandated clients
  • SOUL : Changing the context to avoid droughts and storms in helping people

Welcome to all new readers to the March edition of Tips and Topics.  Thanks to all for reading this month.

David Mee-Lee M.D.


This month, I presented a webinar on The ASAM Criteria and DSM-5.  A participant wrote to me with some follow-up questions.  We ended up having an email “conversation” as we clarified questions and responses to the initial questions.

(If you want to hear the Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) Network webinar, you can access it at www.ASAMcriteria.org.  Click on News & Events and you’ll see it there).

So forMarch, here’s a combined SAVVY, SKILLS and STUMP THE SHRINK. I will share with you the “conversation”.

My Webinar Point- about “doing time”

I made a point that treatment providers, especially when working with mandated clients, are responsible for making sure that clients are “doing treatment” not “doing time” in the program – i.e. not just going through the motions.

Question #1:

Howcan you tell if a person is just “doing time, not treatment”?

Hi David,

What other specific criteria should providers gauge to determine whether a client is just “sitting in the program” or “doing time”?  For example, say the client just wants to get a job and maintains that attitude throughout treatment – in effect, turning treatment into a vocational training program. Would you consider this one example of merely “sitting in treatment?” What should be done, in “treatment” or not? 

Response #1:

Youcan turn “doing time” into active treatment.

“Doing time” is when a person is not taking responsibility for their treatment and their treatment plan.  If your client just wants a job but is in a treatment program, it is fine to make the goal of treatment: to get a job.  That’s what he wants and is a good place to start to engage him in treatment.  Presumably however, he has been referred to an addiction program or mental health because he has an addiction and/or MH problem. Say he doesn’t see that and thinks he just has a job problem, then the treatment plan focus would be: do motivational work around helping him get a job.  At the same time examine with him how has not had a job; or when he does get a job he loses it due to addiction and/or MH problems.

Even with the focus on getting a job, he is not just involved in a vocational training program, because he would be assessing why he doesn’t have a job or can’t keep one. Treatment will emphasize:

*      His examining how he is going to keep a job if he does not address the addiction/MH problems.

*      His sharing in group why he thinks he does not have a behavioral health problem, yet he has not had a job.  OR he shares how he lost his job because he was not showing up, or was hung-over.  OR he shares that due to mental health problems he got fired, or that he couldn’t make it through a job interview because he was so depressed or unstable.

*      Executing a “discovery” plan not a “recovery” plan – discovering any connections between addiction/MH problems that interfere with getting or keeping a job.

*      Active and meaningful participation and working on a collaborative plan. This is “doing treatment”, involving stages of change work to see if the client can connect the dots: that if he is to going to land a job, at some point he will need to address his addiction and/or MH problems.

Say your client just sits there and doesn’t participate in collaborative treatment planning. Then he is not doing treatment, he is “doing time.”  We shouldn’t continue treatment.  If he is not changing his treatment plan in a positive direction, he is essentially choosing not to do treatment, and has a right to leave.

My Webinar Point – DSM-5 SUD and Homelessness

In the new DSM-5 criteria for Substance Use Disorder (SUD), there are 11 criteria with a requirement for at least 2 of the 11 to diagnose SUD.   Some of these relate to how substance use interferes with meeting life expectations like work, family and social obligations.

Question #2:

Are the homeless exempt from certain SUD criteria?


In working with a homeless population it seems the degree of social isolation obscures the impact of their substance use disorder given the extent and degree of social isolation. In effect, the degree of social functioning required of them is much lower in light of the lack of role obligations that they must fulfill. Does this make them “exempt” from some of the DSM-5 substance use disorder criteria?

Response #2:

Many homeless will still meet sufficient criteria to qualify for an SUD.

As you suggest, a socially isolated homeless person may not have work, family or social obligations.  Thus they may not meet the social obligation criteria. However, such a homeless person could meet the other criteria – only 2-3 of 11 are needed to have mild SUD.

Here are the first 4 they could meet:
1. Substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.

2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use.

3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain substance, use, or recover from the substance’s effects.

4. Craving or a strong desire or urge to use the substance. (DSM-5, SUD, criteria 1-4 of 11)

I hope this helps,


My Webinar Point- about “Graduation”

When I discuss program-driven treatment rather than person-centered, outcomes-driven treatment, I encourage participants to move away from “graduation” as aconcept and practice in the treatment of addiction (and actually any illness).

Question #3:

What did you mean about ‘graduating’ from the program’s policies and procedures?

Yes, this helps! If ever there was a critical thinker, it’s you, David.  I enjoyed tracking your logic and appreciate your way of explaining.


One last thing – in response to the question of why its erroneous to use the term graduation in the realm of addiction, you said something about clients’ graduation, but only satisfying graduation of the program’s policies and procedures…or something along those lines. This point grabbed my attention. I was hoping you could articulate it once more and perhaps expand upon it. On that point, I read your piece on RCA Ceremonies and don’t recall coming across it. (March 2011 edition of Tips and Topics)

Thank you for responding to my e-mail and making yourself accessible.

Response #3:

Focus on functional improvement not program compliance.

Thanks for your nice feedback.  Take a look at Tips and Topic (TNT) – February 2013 edition.  I raised concerns that an overemphasis on compliance to program rules, norms and assignments overshadows a person-centered, assessment-based, outcomes-driven approach. Progress in a person’s function based on their individualized treatment plan determines when they transfer to another level of care, not compliance with the program’s policies and procedures, or phases.

I think this addresses what you want, but let me know if not.



Question #4:

How do you work with a client who says the “right things”?

OK,I have one more question in response to your answer in regards to “doing time” in treatment.  Say, the legally-mandated client takes a compliant-orientated stance and “gives in.” Or perhaps he feeds the treatment staff what they want to hear by apparently acknowledging the connection between drug use and employment within the first several week ofIntensive Outpatient (IOP) treatment.  It’s not a unique or peculiar situation to have this kind of mandated client then say they have a job problem and that their drug problem is now under control. They remain “dug in” to that position by posturing as if “everything’s all good” and “I got this” type of mentality with respect to all other aspects of “treatment.” Thus would the treatment plan still be a “discovery plan” focused on the client’s need to obtain employment?


Would you please tell me how you might work with such a client.

Response #4:

Give your client the chance to follow his plan first. Closely monitor outcomes.

Take a look at the following editions of Tips and Topics, especially the difference between “compliance” and “adherence”.  We don’t want any client to be “compliant” and say what we want them to say (“feeds the treatment staff what they want to hear or not”).  Webster’s Dictionary defines “comply” as follows: to act in accordance with another’s wishes, or with rules and regulations.  It defines “adhere” as: to cling, cleave (to be steadfast, hold fast), stick fast.

Perhaps your client believes he has it all under control (“everything’s all good” and “I got this”.)  At that point, we can share with the client anything we see in his behavior and/or thinking and/or relationships we think would threaten his getting or keeping a job.  What if he doesn’t agree?  Then you develop a plan to track how he is doing with his job or job hunting.  Help him identify what would be the first sign(s) to recognize that he is heading in a direction of losing the job, or not even getting the job. If you track this closely with him, he/you can discover if indeed he has everything under control, or whether his plan is starting to unravel.  Close monitoring is vital.  We don’t want to wait until it all blows up before he changes his treatment plan.

For example:
If he still wants to hangout with substance-using friends, not go to AA or other support groups, and still thinks he can get or keep a job, then agree to have him try his plan: i.e. the plan to “keep hanging out with using friends; not attending AA” ‘treatment plan.’ See if his plans work.  Keep close tabs with him on recognizing the first signs that his plan is not working.

Say his treatment plan is actually working- i.e. the  “keep hanging out with using friends; no AA” treatment plan.   Maybe he’s either getting a job or keeping one. Understandably from your experience, you doubt that he will be able to sustain that stance/decision.  So what do you say in your sessions with him?  You agree to keep going with his plan; but with him you carefully watch what happens. With humility, you express that you hope you are wrong but you think his plan is a risky one.  If his plan starts to unravel, then he will be more open to trying a plan that incorporates your ideas, because his plan didn’t work.  What you did give him is the chance to make his own discoveries and decisions.

November 2007:

January 2004:

December 2006:

Hope this helps.


Question #5:

When do you finally discharge a person?

Thanks! David that helps. So in developing a plan to track how she/he is doing toward job obtainment this might include listing jobs of interest; applying to X number of jobs per week; listing potential barriers to employment; practicing job interviewing skills, etc?  AND what if the client consistently fails to successfully follow through–at what point would it merit a discharge?


You’ve shared this excellent example of MOTIVATIONAL ENHANCEMENT technique and what comes to mind is the consent forms which used to state the purpose ofthe consent to Adult Client Services was to ‘monitor compliance’.   Ever since hearing the compliance vs. adherence story, I STOPPED using the word compliance in my consent forms.


In speaking with Probation Officers and Intake Workers from criminal justice services who ask if a client is being compliant, I ask them if they are sure that is what they want from a client.  I then offer the explanation of how temporary and superficial “compliance” is.

Response #5:

Discharge when the person is not making positive changes in the treatment plan.

Thanks for that interesting update on your use of “compliance” versus “adherence”.  A person could be in “compliance” with a court order to do treatment, with which the person agrees to do.  But once they get to treatment, you don’t want “compliance”, you want “adherence” with the collaborative treatment plan in which the person had an integral part in developing.


So in developing a plan to track how she/he is doing toward job obtainment this might include listing jobs of interest; applying to X amount of jobs per week; listing potential barriers to employment; practicing job interviewing skills, etc? 

Yes, correct, as these are strategies that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time limited (SMART).  If the person does whatever they agree to do, then treatment keeps going.


AND what if the client consistently fails to successfully follow through–at what point would it merit a discharge?

If the person does not do what they agreed to do, assess why not.  Perhaps they said ‘yes’ too quickly when they meant ‘maybe’.  Or they really want to follow through, but it was harder to do.  Or they found a better way to get to their goal and so did that instead.  Whatever is revealed when you assess the lack of follow-through, if your client agrees to change their treatment plan in a positive direction, then continue treatment.  There is no need to discharge.

For example:

If a person did not follow through with a job interview they thought would be easy, practice role-playing the job interview process.  If they now agree to practice role-playing to prepare better for a job interview, this is a positive direction. Keep going in treatment.  (You can tell the Probation Officer that your client is in “compliance” with the court order to do treatment and is “adherent” to the collaborative treatment plan.)

What if your client does not want to adjust the treatment plan in a positive direction using role-playing or another acceptable strategy?   At that point, the client is choosing no further treatment.  This is their right and they can leave treatment.  You are not kicking them out – they are not doing treatment.  If you let them stay, then you would be “enabling” – allowing them to “do time” not “do treatment”.  They would be non-adherent (not following through) to the treatment plan they created collaboratively. But they also would be out of compliance with the court order to do treatment.  Hope you see the distinction.


The decision flow makes perfect sense, David.

Thanks again for taking the time to put forth a thorough response.


American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

Mee-Lee D, Shulman GD, Fishman MJ, and Gastfriend DR, Miller MM eds. (2013).The ASAM Criteria: Treatment Criteria for Addictive, Substance-Related, and Co-Occurring Conditions. Third Edition. Carson City,NV: The Change Companies.


I am an avid reader of weather.com and the Weather page of the local newspapers.  This is not because I am finding the latest facts to have an intelligent weather conversation with the next person I meet.  It is because of two realities facing me at home and at work.

*      California had its driest year in history in 2013. This year we have so far received less than half the rain we should have by now.  We are in a drought. We have been doing our best to cut water use – collecting water in the shower while waiting for the water to warm up and using it to water the plants; not turning on garden sprinklers; and “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” (sorry for the bathroom talk).

*      At work, my commute is often an airplane ride into potentially snowy or stormy airports.  It is not good to be scheduled for a workshop or keynote presentation and be stuck at an airport in another state!  So I am always anticipating a Plan B if there is bad weather predicted en route or for my destination.


So this year there has been a strange phenomenon where I check every day hoping to see the weather prediction of either 100% precipitation or 0% precipitation – depending on whether I am home or on the road.


If I am at home, I rejoice to see 100% rain predicted because that means we are one step closer to breaking the drought.


If about to go on aroad trip, I want to see 0% rain or snow predicted, so I am not stressed about getting to the conference on time.


It’s funny how the context can totally change what we want by 100%. It’s a bit like when working with mandated clients.  You can either side with the victim-side of the client (“They made me come”) by saying something like: “Iknow you don’t want to be here, but you have to be, so suck it up and see if you can get something out of the program.”


Or, you can change the context and say: “Thank-you for choosing to work with me, so I can help you get people off your back and help you keep your job, or get your children back, or stay out of jail.”


I don’t want to be in an unproductive drought or a stressful storm.  By changing the context, you can avoid droughts and storms in your work with people too.


I hope it rains…well not next week when I’m traveling.

Until next time

See you again in late April.


Vol. 13 , No. 4

Welcome to the July edition of Tips and Topics. I hope your summer is going well for our northern hemisphere readers. Stay warm Down Under.

David Mee-Lee M.D.


Earlier this month, I received a question prompting this combined SAVVY and STUMP THE SHRINK.  This is especially relevant if you work in a program that focuses on rules and regulations, consequences for breaking the rules, and behavior contracts.


Even if it is the treatment plan that focuses your work with the client, it is easy to become distracted by behavior which disrupts the group and treatment milieu. Here is what Bob Fox of St. Paul, Minnesota wrote:



Dr. Mee-Lee:

“I work in Level 2.1 Intensive Outpatient, mixed gender group. What is your view on policies about treatment peers forming exclusive, romantic relationships, or plain old sexual intimacy (hooking up) in treatment?”


Bob gave me three multiple choice options, but as you can see further below, I waxed eloquent and expanded way beyond the offered choices:


“a.   Should the relationship be prohibited and one or both clients be discharged (referred to another program?)

b.   Should the relationship be allowed, but the involved clients be separated into different groups? And then a focus of treatment is learning about healthy relationships, boundaries, etc.?

c.   Or some other option?”



Think about how you deal with emotional, behavioral and cognitive issues that are potentially disruptive to the group and treatment milieu.


My response

In general, my view is to see all emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems as treatment issues needing to be dealt with in the context of an individualized treatment plan.  That plan should be frequently and collaboratively changed depending on what is working well (or not working well) in the client’s progress in treatment.  


So in this case…. if peers are forming relationships and hooking up, that is behavior which is going to happen while a person is in treatment and certainly occurs when people are not in treatment.  I suspect that for many clients in treatment the relationships and sexual behavior they engage in has created problems in their lives previously – both substance-related and non-substance-related.


In outpatient and residential treatment, we have an opportunity to create:

  • A safe, therapeutic environment.
  • A therapeutic milieu which seeks to engage and attract people into an exploration of what has worked well for them before and what has not worked well.
  • An opportunity allowing clients to develop and practice new and healthier ways to deal with their behavioral health problems.  

In addiction treatment and sometimes in mental health as well, we have had a tradition of creating a safe environment by having rules, policies and consequences if clients break the rules: like behavioral contracts; set back a level or phase in residential settings; loss of privileges; writing tasks; separating people into different groups; discharge etc.


We need to rethink our attitudes about what treatment is meant to do:

  • Meet people at the stage of change they are at. (What is the person at Action for? Identify their issues. Are they possibly still in a Precontemplation, Contemplation or Preparation stage of change?).
  • Help them self-identify and own the issues that keep “shooting themselves in the foot.” What behaviors are counterproductive to recovery and getting them what they want? Is it health and wellness? Maybe getting their children back? Getting off probation? Keeping a job? Retaining a relationship? Keeping their housing? Being sober and embracing recovery? Whatever it is that brought them to treatment- find it out.
  • Work compassionately with them to facilitate a self-change process using a collaborative, accountable treatment plan.
  • Fashion with them an updated treatment plan whenever progress stalls or new issues arise e.g., exclusive relationships and sexual behavior. The new strategies should move in a positive direction.


Help clients assess and evaluate the “differential diagnosis” of their emotional, behavioral and cognitive issues and the effect on their lives.


The answer to the STUMP THE SHRINK question centers around having a talk with the clients in the exclusive relationship. In addition, talk with all their peers in group regarding the dangers of becoming distracted by exclusive relationships and sexual behavior. Explore with all the clients about how this type of situation has distracted them in the past, how it distracts now in the present setting. Converse about how it can ‘de-focus’ people from recovery, from attending to their “work” of embracing new ways of being and doing.  


1. Engage the group in talking. Where has this been an issue in other peers’ lives? What have they learnt from those experiences?

2. You can also discuss the dangers of forming intense new relationships early in recovery, especially if the new “love of my life” is also new in recovery and may even be less interested in recovery than I am.  

3. How easy it is to turn to relationships and sex as a way to deal with pain e.g., regrets of past mistakes, lost relationships and jobs, mental health issues? Discuss this angle.

4. Pose this question for discussion: How can sex or a new relationship avoid the hard work of recovery? Can people avoid taking “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th Step)? Looking at your life, whether in addiction or mental health treatment, can be a very hard thing to do.

5. Identify if certain mental health issues are contributing to such behavior e.g., unresolved issues with parents; or trauma or sexual abuse.


In other words, there is a whole “differential diagnosis” of what forming relationships and sexual behavior can mean.  These are assessment and treatment issues to be opened up for the clients involved.  There is also a rich opportunity for the other peers in the group to explore these issues for themselves for “there but for the grace of God go I.”  



Consider what happens to treatment if the focus is on rules, consequences and discharge.


You can “prohibit” the exclusive relationship and sex, but are you also going to “prohibit”:

  • Substance use and relapses (we still do this often and I have written before about discharging people for having the symptoms and signs of their addiction illness).
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Cravings to use with irritability and isolating behavior.
  • Disrespectful talking and interactions with peers and staff.
  • Hanging out with drug-using friends.
  • Telling war stories about drugs etc. etc.

Treatment is not about us making people behave. It is about helping them make the right decisions in the dark of night when nobody is watching.  If people do the right thing only when in our program, have we helped them to help themselves when we are not around?  Have we facilitated a self-change process which enhances sustainable recovery? Or have we externally imposed compliant behavior that too easily falls away after “graduating” from treatment?



When is it appropriate to discharge people for their behavior?


A. There may be mandated clients who say they want treatment, but end up just “doing time”.  They occupy and distract themselves by forming relationships and hooking up. They are not, in good faith, looking at the meaning of their behavior, the negative effects on their life and on others.   Just sitting in a chair is not doing treatment. They are not choosing the work of treatment. At that point, you can talk about discharge.  

  • So you would be discharging them not because of bad behavior or breaking rules, but because they are not being open and willing to change their treatment plan in a positive direction. They have a right not to do treatment. As the clinician, you have a right to keep the treatment milieu therapeutic and “discovery” and “recovery”-focused.

B. If you ascertain someone is a sexual predator focused on disrupting treatment for themselves and others through forming relationships and hooking up, then discharge is appropriate. Why? Because you run a treatment place, not a dating place.  

  • Let’s say you determine a client’s behavior is part of their biopsychosocial-spiritual illness with implications for addiction, mental health and physical well-being. Then these are important treatment issues to pursue with further assessment and treatment. Do not discharge and hope you can just prohibit human behavior. If the person is willing to deal head on with this behavior and attitudes, then treatment is what they need. To discharge them for having problems to work on doesn’t fit my vision for treatment.

A friend and colleague recently said this:

“My mantra is, ‘this is the place where you don’t have to be at your best.’ If people are out of sorts or have a bad hair day, all the more material for the staff to work with.”  

Andrea G. Barthwell, MD, FASAM

Oak Park, Illinois




If we expect people to behave and be at their best, then they probably don’t need treatment and have nothing important to change.


In June 2003, the 3rd edition ever of Tips and Topics, I wrote about “Discovery, Dropout” (D/D) prevention plans for people in early stages of change, those not yet interested in recovery. I also wrote about “Recovery, Relapse” (R/R) prevention plans for people at Preparation and Action for recovery.  In 2015, you still find most treatment providers in general health, mental health and addiction treatment creating treatment plans which assume the client/patient is committed to recovery and relapse prevention.

  • The doctor or nurse writes a prescription for the patient expecting adherence and healthy living. Actually medication non-adherence is widespread with rates ranging from 25% to 50%. Between $100 and $300 billion annually of avoidable health care costs in the US have been attributed to non-adherence.

(Aurel O Iuga and Maura J McGuire: “Adherence and health care costs”. Risk Management Health Policy. 2014; 7: 35-44. Published online 2014 Feb 20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3934668)

  • Psychiatrists and mental health clinicians document problem #1 as “Psychosis” and problem #2 as “Medication Compliance” in the treatment plan.  However the patient thinks they are not mentally ill, it’s a conspiracy and the medication is poison and part of the plot. No wonder the patient doesn’t take their medication nor show up for sessions.
  • The addiction counselor documents strategies of abstinence, AA meetings and changing drug-using friends when the client simply just wants to cut back, hates AA and sees nothing wrong with his friends. No wonder he drops out of treatment.

What patients and clients actually need is a Discovery, drop-out prevention:

  • To discover for themselves (with our help) that what they are doing with their emotions, behavior and thinking is not getting them what they want.
  • We need to do all we can to prevent them from dropping out of services, so we have a chance to attract them into recovery.


Consider these Sample Strategies for Treatment Plans

  1. List three reasons the court sent you to treatment (D/D).
  2. Write down the most recent incidents involving alcohol and other drugs (D/D).
  3. Identify what happens if you don’t comply with probation requirements and report to group (D/D).
  4. List the positive and negative aspects of substance use (D/D).
  5. Attend at least one AA meeting and see if you can identify with anyone’s story (D/D).
  6. In group, verbalize what things need to change in your life or not (D/D).
  7. Discuss the positive and negative consequences of continued substance use (D/D).
  8. Explore early childhood history of violence through individual therapy once per week. Focus on what kind of role models the client had then, and how this affects relationships now (R/R).
  9. For the next incident of rage and anger, track it. Fill in the date, trigger, physiological signs and your behavior. Then discuss how you could have de-escalated the incident (R/R).
  10. In group, share what has been working to prevent relapse and obtain other suggestions (R/R).

For more on Discovery plans, see SKILLS in the March 2006 edition.



Related past editions explain aspects of this too if you want to take a look:

February 2013



November 2012




Treatment Plan Strategies for Working on Relationships and Hooking Up


Referring back to Bob’s question: if the clients are interested in treatment, they will be willing to change their treatment plan in a positive direction using such strategies as:

  1. Talk with a counselor about where relationships and hooking up has affected their life and addiction in the past. Share that in group to receive feedback.
  2. In group, explain what is so great about the new, exclusive relationship. Obtain feedback on whether this relationship will help, hinder or jeopardize recovery.
  3. Have a trial of staying away from the other person for a week. Then have each person in the relationship talk in group about what that experience was like.
  4. In group, talk about examples of past relationships and sexual behavior they got into quickly. Examine how that contributed to problems in their life, both addiction-related or not.  

Once you have done more assessment, there would be many other strategies that might fit better for this client. If they are willing to do this work, treatment continues. Don’t separate them or discharge them. Use the power of the group to implement these strategies.


Note of Caution:

You’ll notice that I define good faith working in treatment as “being open and willing to change their treatment plan in a positive direction.” Or as they say in AA “progress, not perfection”. We would like every person from Day 1, to be:

  • perfectly sober, with no cravings or impulses to use and no actual use
  • perfectly delaying gratification for relationships and hooking up and totally focused on recovery
  • perfectly non-depressed, non-psychotic; non-anxious; non-manic
  • perfectly non-angry, irritable and isolating
  • perfectly non self-mutilating, suicidal or impulsive etc. etc.

But if our clients and patients could do all that, they wouldn’t need our help in the first place! So if you have a notion to change their treatment plans by inserting: “Bob and Jane will end this inappropriate relationship and sexual behavior and focus on recovery” and then discharge Bob and Jane when they break their treatment plan, that is “perfection” not “progress”. It is not changing their treatment plan in a “positive direction”, it is expecting perfection and the final outcome immediately.


I just have to tell you my Medicare story. (So now you know I’m a senior citizen.) Last year when I joined Medicare, I was looking forward to that much lower monthly premium for health insurance…and yes, it was quite a bit lower. But then new notices came informing me that the bill was going to be higher because of my income. (So now you know I’m not a minimum wage senior citizen.)


I was OK with that, because I don’t mind contributing to the greater good if I can afford it. But then the amount I owed kept changing and I dutifully paid what the monthly invoice said. Here’s where the story gets interesting (or is a better word “frustrating”).

  • Invoices would come late with a due date that had already passed; or were so close to the date I received the bill, that it was bound to be delinquent.
  • You can’t pay online, so by the time snail-mail arrived, it was surely late, plus the three weeks it takes for their department to process the payment.
  • So now, each monthly invoice was showing either delinquent amounts owed and/or unprocessed payments I had already made.
  • Then I didn’t receive any invoices for two months. Had I already paid too much in advance, so they didn’t send me a bill? Or did it get lost in the mail? Or had I lost my Medicare? Who knows, because you can’t check your account and payments online – like every other business.

Time to call and talk to someone at Medicare. I called on a whim one night to see what hours they were open and amazingly you can talk to a “live” person- they are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And it is not someone in the Philippines or India. Sounded like a regular ole American.

  • Nice helpful man, but after 7 PM he can’t check the computer records to see what I owe or not. I could call back the next morning and then find out what I owed. But he did tell me I could sign up for Medicare Easy Pay where the payments would come directly out of my bank account. That sounds more like it in the 21st century.
  • But not so fast. He would have to mail me the form to fill out, and that could take 3 weeks; then it could take up to 8 weeks to process my application for Easy (or not so Easy) Pay. Faster, he said, to sign up with my bank for online payment directly.
  • Went to my bank website and in 5 minutes I had signed up and paid a couple months’ premium just to be sure I wasn’t behind. “I’ll check in the morning to see where my account stands”, I said to myself.
  • Next morning at the Medicare call center, there was a nice helpful lady and not a long wait to get to her either. However, she can see what premium I am being charged, but has to send a special request to another department to tell me whether my account is ahead or behind and what has happened to my monthly bills.

“Is there no way that I can go to a website, see my payments and what I owe, just like I do with my credit card, electric and phone bill etc.?”


No, I’m sorry, we can’t even see that. I have to send a request to another department and they will call you to let you know where your account stands.”


“Could they not send me an email, because what if I miss their call?”


Oh, well if they don’t reach you, they will send information in the mail.”


“You mean, regular snail-mail, not email?”


You get my drift. Now I think it is great that Medicare is open 24/7 and the hold time was very reasonable. BUT I spent at least a half an hour or more with people who receive more than minimum wage and nice government benefits only to find out that they can’t help me. The information I need will take much more time being spent by more government workers who will use last century’s methods to communicate with me.

 I better stop here and recite the Serenity Prayer. But if any of you have the courage and wisdom to make government more efficient, please step forward. This old guy feels a bit hopeless.

Until next time

Glad you could join us this month. See you in late August.



Upcoming conference; 14 minutes at Longwood University; Stump the Shrink

Vol. #14, No. 7

David Mee-Lee M.D.


Upcoming Conference:

If you’d like to come to sunny California soon for the 7th Western US Journal Training Conference October 24-26 2016, in Newport Beach, CA, The Change Companies is featuring a “Justice Services Track” for all those who work directly within the Justice System. I will be speaking and attending. And there is much more – take a look at


Hope to see you there.


Earlier this month, I got an email from Kevin Doyle, Ed.D., LPC, LSATP., who is a “longtime counselor in substance use disorder treatment, now Assistant Professor in Counselor Education at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. If “Longwood University” sounds familiar, but you aren’t quite sure why you remember the name, it is because it was the site of the October 4 Vice-Presidential Debate.

Kevin was asked to give one of about 10 faculty talks that afternoon as part of Longwood University’s debate-related activities. He talked about “Addiction and Public Policy” and covered many topics that I have written and spoken about before – only he covered them not in a day’s workshop, but in 14 minutes. You can see his presentation at: https://youtu.be/5UP5njyders

Since the Presidential election is heating up to a fever pitch, I thought a summary of Kevin’s points would keep us in the election mood, since he was up close and personal to at least the VP candidates. And by the way, Kevin is an “avid reader of Tips and Topics, which I enjoy very much.”


Review how attitudes and terminology about addiction, perpetuates stigma

Kevin reviewed many points about stigma and the way the public, payers and providers view addiction treatment. Here is his list with some comments I added:

1. How we perpetuate stigma – we talk of “addict” and “alcoholic” instead of saying “a person with addiction or a substance use disorder” – Use person-first language

The most recent Tips and Topics on this is September 2015:


2. When a person goes for help for treatment, we say they were “sent to rehab” instead of “they are seeking help for a condition or a particular problem.”

The public, payers and policy makers and even treatment providers think addiction treatment is doing a set length of stay in “rehab” – a residential program from which the person will graduate and complete. Some insurance benefit plans then limit the number of “rehab” admissions to two, 30-day episodes a year, instead of understanding an addiction treatment continuum of care.

3. Families and clients sometimes say “We tried treatment and it didn’t work”. But if a cancer patient tried chemotherapy and the cancer recurred, most would try it again or certainly not give up on treatment and dismiss it.

With addiction, families and even physicians feel that if treatment hasn’t cured the person, then treatment doesn’t work and it’s no use going back to treatment.

4. “Treatment is a waste of time unless the person really wants it” – few people wake up and spontaneously say this is the day for recovery. Most people getting into addiction treatment have some external pressure or loss that prompts them to seek treatment and may even say “I don’t need this. I’m no worse than anyone else. I can stop any time I want.”

Expecting people to show up fully ready for recovery from day one before treatment is available, is a good way to decrease case loads and not help people. Treatment’s job is to attract people into a change process and recovery by using motivational enhancement methods.

5. “We need to lock those people up and they can learn their lesson that way” – Society responds to addiction with a criminal justice, punishment perspective.

Happily there is a bipartisan recognition and effort to see addiction treatment as a cost-effective way to increase public safety and decrease legal recidivism and crime rather than to just incarcerate those with addiction.

 6. When a person gets a urine drug screen result that is positive for a substance(s), we say they have “dirty urine” – We would never say a patient had “dirty cholesterol” and scold or sanction them for their laboratory result.

If a person’s urine is “dirty”, what does that imply? They are “dirty” too and we perpetuate stigma and discrimination.



Note how payers perpetuate stigma by policies that don’t see addiction as a disease

Payers’ policies often don’t treat addiction as a chronic disease process needing treatment.

1. “We can’t pay for residential treatment until there has been an outpatient treatment failure.” Instead of allowing a person to go immediately into a level of care that is needed, such a “fail first” policy expects a clinically inappropriate level of care to be used first.

We would never expect a person with diabetic coma to try outpatient diabetic dietary changes before admitting them for a diabetic crisis. We would never expect a patient with a heart attack to try weight loss, exercise and stopping smoking before admission to the cardiac care unit. It is true that if a person is safe to do treatment in an outpatient setting, that level of care should be tried first rather than residential care. But if they need residential treatment from day 1, then they should not need a “treatment failure” in outpatient first.

2. “Sometimes people are penalized for doing well”.  If a client is progressing well, payers expect the person to be transferred to a less intensive level of care and limit further reimbursement for care. Providers feel it is then necessary to play games by reporting their client is not doing well in order to assure ongoing payment for treatment. 

The solution is to explain honestly, the progress a person is making. But then the provider has to convey what clinical severity still exists that needs services that can only safely be delivered by more time in the current level of care before transferring them.

3. “Burdensome processes for accessing benefits that lead to longer waiting times and put barriers in place to get someone into treatment.” When someone is ready to access treatment, waiting lists and appointments several days and even weeks away work against treating addiction as the disease it is.



Now note how providers perpetuate stigma by policies that don’t treat addiction as a disease

1. “Length of stay is not individualized according to the needs of the client.” – 28 day programs based on insurance coverage, not based on severity of illness and progress in treatment. Adolescent treatment program design has added 2 weeks for a 42 day program because adolescents can be difficult to treat; and cookie cutter programing expects all clients to need and do the same interventions e.g., everyone has to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. For some it might not be the best fit for a mutual help group as powerful and effective as it is for others. 

2. “Kick people out for violating the rules and boundaries of the program.” For example discharging people for using substances on a pass when addiction is characterized by loss of control of use – that is what addiction is that needs more treatment, not discharge. 

3. “Inappropriate contact between clients can get clients thrown out because of a moralistic sense instead of this being a disease process” e.g., clients found holding hands – “Should we discharge them?” Kevin’s staff once asked. 

4. “Treatment programs may be only open from 9 -5 in OP; or only open Monday-Friday.” This doesn’t fit the needs of people with addiction who are using at all hours of the day and week. This is another example of how providers do not adhere to a therapeutically-based approach.

5. “Even people in recovery can perpetuate stigma by using terms like “sober”, “clean” or “straight.” These are “good and bad” and “positive and negative” stigmatizing moralistic terms rather than empowering terms like “I am a person in long-term recovery” (“Anonymous People” film). Such terms work against a public health and treatment approach to addiction.



Consider these Addiction and Public Policy Issues

Public policy implications:

1. Be aware of these stigmatizing terms and avoid using them.

2. Treat addiction like the chronic disease that it is and compare with what we do for other chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, heart disease and hypertension. Some say “but addiction is different because there is choice involved in using substances.” But with other chronic diseases people make diet and lifestyle choices all the time that affect the progression of their disease and their recovery. For example, 70% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented or delayed with dietary choices and lifestyle modifications (Forman D, Bulwer BE, Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2006;8:47-57) 

For more facts and figures on lifestyle change, see the October 2015 edition of Tips and Topics:


3. Individualize treatment for the variety of needs that people present with.

4. Eliminate waiting lists.

5. Respond to relapse from a treatment perspective not punitively. 

6. Negative consequences can motivate change e.g., an encounter with the legal system can motivate a person to seek help, so there is no need to pamper people or not hold them accountable for their behavior. But treatment is the response for someone who has addiction that results in illegal or bad behavior, not punishment.

“From uncomfortability comes change” said one of Kevin’s mentors. 


More and more states are looking to The ASAM Criteria to help reorganize their addiction treatment system. I wrote about these changing forces in the August 2015 edition of Tips and Topics



Understand ASAM Criteria Level 3.1 and 3.5 and Moving from Program-Driven Services

Here are some excerpts from questions about New Hampshire’s residential levels of care and my response about the true content and spirit of The ASAM Criteria levels of care.

Dr. Mee-Lee,

Hello, my name is Paul Kiernan. I am the clinical services specialist at the Division of Behavioral Health for the State of New Hampshire. You and I had exchange emails some time ago regarding helping us better define the clinical requirements for level 3.1, Clinically Managed Low Intensity Residential, a level of care provided by several agencies that are contracted with us. We are having a bit of difficulty that I was hoping you could shed some light on.

The contracted agencies we work with are required to provide services consistent with ASAM Levels of Care. The problem we are encountering is determining what services fall under the scope of the level of care (these issues are being encountered in levels 3.1 and 3.5 primarily) and what services are above and beyond this and therefore can be billed as separate services. Many of the agencies are providing Recovery Support Services with groups such as Smoking Cessation, Managing Anxiety, Importance of Self-Care, Money Management, jewelry Making, Designing a resume and Self-Empowerment to name a few. Recovery support services are listed under both levels of care but frequency is not defined.   The contracts state that the contractor will provide services in accordance with ASAM Criteria, which leaves us with a bit of ambiguity. Any support or direction you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

Paul Kiernan, LADC Clinical Services Specialist

Division for Behavioral Health

Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services

Clinical Services Unit

Concord, NH

Email address: paul.kiernan@dhhs.nh.gov


My response:

In Level 3.1, the person is getting at least 5 hours of clinical services per week. Since 3.1 is more of a 24 hour living support level, I can see that any formal individual or group clinical services could be charged separately because a person could be living in 3.1 but getting services in an outpatient (OP) agency separate from the 3.1 site.

The kind of 24 hour counseling support that is part of 3.1 would be provided under the 3.1 daily fee, because there should be trained staff there on a 24 hour basis, who can handle informal counseling support to someone who is having, for example, cravings to use at 11 PM or 2 AM and needs someone to talk to. But if there are formal clinical services like a group or individual session in 3.1, then that can be provided onsite or in collaboration with another OP service agency.

Recovery support services are not referring to Jewelry making. Helping with money management, resumes and vocational counseling if needed by the client on their treatment plan could qualify as a clinical service for Dimension 6, Recovery Environment, needs and be counted in the five hours or more of clinical services.

The daily fee for Level 3.1 would be lower than 3.5, Clinically Managed High Intensity Residential, which is for people who need 24-hour services because of imminent danger and instability. Sessions like Money Management, Jewelry making, Designing a Resume would not be in a Level 3.5 treatment plan that should be focused more on stabilization of imminent danger and preparation for continued care in less intensive levels of care. Because 3.5 is 24 hour care, the daily fee should be higher and include any formal individual and/or groups clinical sessions in the daily fee and not unbundled as in Level 3.1.

So the frequency of clinical services is not defined in the ASAM Criteria book for either level 3.1 or 3.5 as in 3.1, it depends on the severity and function of the person and the needs in their individualized plan. In 3.1 it has to be at least 5 hours/week to distinguish 3.1 from a general recovery home, halfway house or Oxford House. 3.1 clients are more severe needing the availability of 24 hour living and counseling support plus at least five hours of formal clinical services.

In 3.5, clients need 24-hour care and therefore formal and informal counseling sessions and supports all included in the daily fee. Again, frequency of sessions in 3.5 depends on the level of instability of the client and what they need to be stabilized sufficiently to continue care in a less intensive level.

Paul’s Reaction to my Response

You helped clarify a misconception I had about the 3.1 level of care and also got me thinking about what patients are appropriate for what residential levels of care and what interventions are appropriate for those patients.

We have really been trying to move to a more patient-driven system of care and have specific language in the contracts stating that patient stays are treatment plan/patient driven. Treatment plans have to be personalized and the levels of care must follow ASAM guidelines. The reality is that these are, and continue to be, program-driven with arbitrary assignments and Evidence-Based Practices (EBPs) implemented with no real evidence that they are clinically appropriate for the particular client.  

In the past year I have really immersed myself in understanding ASAM clinically but also in philosophy. One of the things that I will be working on is development and implementation of a comprehensive plan to help our contracted agencies become patient-driven. Any support along the way we be greatly appreciated. I find it very difficult to articulate how grateful I am for your input.

Thank you


ASAM Criteria Level 3.3 and Dealing with Behavior Problems

Another question from Paul

On another note I would like to pick your brain on Level 3.3, Population Specific High Intensity Residential Level of Care. We have none in our great State of New Hampshire and this seems to be a level of care a lot of folks who “fall through the crack” may benefit from. Patients who are not meeting criteria for psychiatric admission, but cannot function in a typical patient milieu. Patients who have behavioral problems who end up getting discharged for rule infractions (throwing things at staff, cursing at staff, stealing from other patients, stealing medication and hiding it in there room etc). For now, we have been trying to get folks set up with Co-Occurring enhanced 2.1, Intensive Outpatient or 2.5, Partial Hospitalization where there are less restrictions and it is easier for them behaviorally. Obviously problems arise when dangerousness and lethality are high. Wondering if you have any suggestions of other states that are doing this well or what a good 3.3 would look like? Also if the interim solution I mentioned is a good idea for now.

My response:

I know 3.3 is tricky and I don’t have a mecca state for you to go to. But I would make the distinction that 3.3 is for people with cognitive difficulties and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that makes it hard for them to be in a typical milieu. In contrast, patients who have behavioral problems may or may not be having those because of cognitive issues like TBI. Rule infractions can be caused by multiple reasons including, but not limited to:

1. Programs that are more focused on phases in a program-driven system where patients advance by being compliant with rules. “Breaking rules” is seen a behavioral problem requiring behavioral contracts, rather than assessing why the person “broke the rule” and making this part of an individualized treatment plan.   It may help to look at Tips and Topics, Volume 10, No. 11 February 2013


2. A patient may be mandated to a program and is not really doing treatment and just “doing time”. If the program is not skilled in Motivational Interviewing and stages of change work, they are going to be more focused on rule breaking and compliance instead of engaging the person in a “discovery” plan rather than a “recovery” plan for which the patient may not be ready. Such a person would be better treated in OP levels unless in imminent danger and then in 3.5 only for the time they are unsafe and unstable. Working with a person who is more interested in getting off probation than in getting into recovery and using residential levels for that work is a setup for rule breaking and the revolving door of discharging people for bad behavior.

3. If there are issues in Dimension 3, Emotional, Behavioral or Cognitive Conditions or Complications, that are causing a person to “break rules”, then the focus should be on assessing what the Dimension 3 problem is and what to do about it, not discharge. If it is an issue in Dimension 5, Relapse, Continued Use or Continued Problem Potential, and the person is willing to change their treatment plan in a positive direction, treatment continues as stealing medication and trying to get and use drugs is normal for people with addiction.

This behavior is not about rule breaking, but about the cravings of addiction. If the person is not interested in treatment, and just thinks they can have fun while “doing time” then discharge or court sanctions are appropriate, not for having used, but because they are not interested in treatment, as evidenced by not participating in a reassessment of what went wrong and changing their plan in a positive direction to get a better outcome next time they get a craving to use. In other words “rule breaking” should be assessed as a bad outcome needing a new treatment plan.

(See Appendix B on Dimension 5 in The ASAM Criteria (2013).

4. It may be that a program has too many rules trying to control behavior rather than assess six dimensional needs and do individualized treatment. Residential levels should focus on preparation of people for OP services not seen as a place for a total life makeover in residential.

Yes, there should be more OP levels that can take people with co-occurring mental disorders and addiction (COD) and for those in early stages of change who need motivational services. We should use residential only for people who need 24-hour services to be imminently safe. So developing levels 1, Outpatient, 2.1 and 2.5 that can be more enhanced and complexity capable is not an interim solution, it is an important solution in an array of approaches.

Paul’s Reaction to my Response

Dr. Mee-Lee,

You helped clarify some misconceptions I had about the 3.3 level of care. During the Quality Assurance (QA) of the treatment plans, these are exactly the types of things I am encountering. On one treatment plan the goal was actually “the client will reduce feelings of shame and improve self-esteem”. I don’t think that goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, or Time-Limited (SMART)

One of the many obstacles we deal with is clinicians’ knee jerk reaction to treat cases as imminent danger. So many people are dying that folks ignore or misinterpret imminent danger criteria C (“the likelihood that such adverse events will occur in the very near future, within hours and days, not weeks or months.” – The ASAM Criteria 2013, pp 65-68; 420) and are treating their own anxiety. As a result, patients end up in what appears to be an inappropriate level of care. So we have been engaging our providers in a community of practice to help them sharpen their ASAM skills and in a lot of cases teach them a basic understanding.

I have to be honest, prior to the newest edition I was one of those who just did the 1 page checklist! We have done 2 webinars consisting of an overview of the 6 ASAM Criteria dimensions, severity rating, withdrawal management, levels of care, treatment planning and a special Paul Kiernan soap box lecture on what really constitutes imminent danger. 

A point I stressed during these is that just because two patients have a high severity rating in dimension 5 for example, does not mean that they are going to have the same treatment plan. One patient may be using because they do not like dealing with negative emotions and another patient may just really like getting high. Another patient may have absolutely no internal dialogue prior to using (perhaps a red flag to revisit dimension 4, Readiness to Change) where the other person has a real internal struggle. 

These are some of the things that we are working on in hopes of moving providers to a patient-driven model.

Again I am so grateful for your correspondence.




Mee-Lee D, Shulman GD, Fishman MJ, and Gastfriend DR, Miller MM eds. (2013). The ASAM Criteria: Treatment Criteria for Addictive, Substance-Related, and Co-Occurring Conditions. Third Edition. Carson City, NV: The Change Companies.

For more information on the new edition: www.ASAMcriteria.org


Warning: The following is an unpaid, unsolicited, political opinion. If you are definitely voting for Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, please stop reading. I do not want to argue with or alienate you. I value you as a Tips and Topics reader and more. 

But if you are undecided, you may be interested in my thoughts and concerns. These are not academic political science observations, but just my opinions that you could rightly take with a grain of salt:

1. President of the United States and leader of the free world requires intelligence, integrity, political experience and knowledge of how political systems work. While it is understandable to think career politicians are the problem, I have always favored change from within, rather than blowing things up and radical change from without. It is easy to see solutions when on the campaign trail, but much harder when faced with the real negotiations and issues when in actual office e.g., Barack Obama declared he would close down Guantanamo Bay and meant it. But easier said than done.

2. For any job, especially a highly complex position that requires interfacing with many systems, countries and personalities, I would only consider candidates who have some demonstrated experience in the duties, dilemmas, challenges and complexities of the position. Hilary Clinton apparently delivered on a consensus, collaborative and across-the-aisle style when she was a Senator; and slogan or not, I favor “Stronger Together” than “Build a Wall” type politics.

3. How a candidate has defined their life’s mission and occupied their actual work energies, tells me whether there is a consistency in what they stand for and believe in. Have they demonstrated a commitment to public service or to causes that are consistent with public service? Has their work and systems experience encompassed the kinds of challenges they will face as President? Do the values of their life’s work speak to compassion, integrity, honesty, and fair play; or to materialism, adversarial power plays, bullying and self-centeredness? Is there a value of “it takes a village” or “I alone, can make things great again”?

4. Finally, you have almost certainly heard about the infamous audio and video of Donald Trump bragging about kissing and groping women because as a star, you can do whatever you want. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see the link:


I give many workshops and keynotes and have often been the featured speaker at a conference. What would you think of my integrity and values; my leadership and presentation content if I were to say that because I’m the keynote speaker I could kiss or grab any woman I wanted at the conference; and then say that if I didn’t do that, it was the woman’s fault that she wasn’t attractive? I am no star and I am not running for President. But I am mystified that millions are not fazed by Donald Trump’s demonstration of distorted values, lack of respect, abuse of power and failure of integrity.

I rarely speak my mind about politics, but in this case, I felt compelled to speak up. I hope you will vote – for whomever your conscience says has the skill; compassion and integrity; and knowledge, character and values to be President of the United States.

Until next time

Thanks for joining us this month . See you in late November with President Clinton or President Trump.