Aspen Marketing -- Quid pro Quo

Information for Referrals
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Providing information in exchange for referrals is a strange issue, but among the very strange events we describe,  this is the issue that is probably most revealing about the character of Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital marketing, and perhaps the character of the company itself.  Of course there is much that is strange about Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital.

A number of years ago, our consultant, Tom Croke, visited a relatively new Aspen program addressing substance abuse issues to determine if we would be referring to it.  In the process of meeting with the executive director of that program and the clinical director, he asked the question, “How do you effect change in the people you work with?”  It seemed a pretty basic question.  So basic that when Tom had toured Island View Residential Treatment Center, a premier Aspen facility just a few weeks prior, then Executive Director of that facility, Dr. Jared Balmer has suggested to everyone in that tour group to ask that question at every facility visited.  Dr. Balmer was suggesting that we should at best be cautious about a facility that found that to be a difficult question.   So we do not understand any reason why people in another Aspen facility should find the question troubling. 

However, Tom felt the answer from the new program was rather vague and difficult to understand. So he began to ask specific questions.  Keep in mind that Tom had been the director of a sequence of two substance abuse programs for fourteen years and had worked in the substance abuse for an additional eight years.  So in general he understood and understands most reasonable discourse regarding methods in rehabilitation of substance abusers.

Whether it was Tom’s obtuseness in comprehending what the folks in the program were saying , notwithstanding his years of  experience in substance abuse work, or the program representatives’ way of expressing themselves, Tom could not derive a coherent sense of what they were talking about.   As Tom asked more penetrating questions, the response became that the answer was contained in the curriculum the key people in the program had prepared.  So Tom, still thinking in terms of Dr. Balmer’s advice asked for a copy of the curriculum – if they could not otherwise explain its change process coherently.

The reply was that they would supply a copy of the curriculum to professional referral sources who supplied four or five referrals.  As we interpreted the situation, in one sense we were getting the kind of answer that Dr. Balmer had cautioned us about.  In doing so, his implication was clearly that programs doing that should be avoided.  But this reply also lent itself to a reasonable  interpretation that we were offered an “item of value” for referrals.  In any case, consistent with Dr. Balmer’s advice, we were unwilling to refer pending getting a cogent explanation of the change process.  We were also troubled by the offer of a copy of the curriculum in exchange for referrals (as we understood the offer). 

At that point, we brought our concerns to our marketing representative. At that time we made clear that the context of how the “curriculum for referrals” offer had been stated, there could be room for interpretation as to whether or not this was an offer of an “item of value” for referrals, but we could understand it only that way if they were to persist. In addition, before we could refer we needed a cogent explanation of their intended process of change whether or not it would be by means of supplying the curriculum. 

That led to a special meeting being arranged between Tom and the executive director of that facility while both were attending an IECA conference. However there was still no explanation of the change process that we could understand, and the offer to release the curriculum in exchange for several referrals was repeated.  Only this time the offer was more clearly an offer of exchange.   Further conversation took place between Tom and the marketing representative assigned to encourage referrals from FamilyLight sm. 

As a result Tom was invited to the Asheville NC educational event for referral sources, to which he otherwise apparently would not be invited. That allowed a further opportunity for Tom to visit that program to clear up the problem.  A further encounter with the Executive Director led nowhere.  Then at dinner (with a background of a live chamber music ensemble), Tom was seated next to the clinical director of the facility in question.  

A friendly conversation occurred in which Tom still attempted to learn about the change process, but Tom still did not hear a cogent explanation, so he continued to ask questions. Finally the clinical director offered to provide the curriculum for a single referral.  Tom immediately responded that it was a clear quid pro quo attempt to “buy” an item of supposed value  He repeated that FamilyLight sm needed a clear explanation of the change process prior to ANY referral, and with a clear explanation of the change process by another route, we had no need for the curriculum.  The clinical director stood up and left the table in an outburst of rage. Tom immediately went to his marketing representative reporting what happened and asking for intervention by the senior management at Aspen, pointing out the ethical implications of quid pro quo marketing. 

In response to the request for intervention by senior management, the following day, Tom was confronted by the Senior Vice President at Aspen who supervised the program at issue and the “Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer.” The marketing representative, a person we continue to like and respect was present, but obviously not in control of the behavior of her superiors.   The marketing Vice President did most of the talking.  She proceeded to attack Tom accusing him of unethical behavior questioning the quid pro quo offer.  She spoke about the background of the clinical director, breaking her anonymity in Alcoholics anonymous.

The relevance of that was not clear but it seemed to be that anyone who would challenge her ethics or competence must be fundamentally unethical.  Frankly we have trouble following that logic. The dressing down went on for about ten  or fifteen minutes. Both the words and the tone were both defamatory and abusive.  Following that Tom was whisked to the airport to fly home. 

After that FamilyLight sm was never again contacted by Aspen Marketing staff until we received an email approach from Karen Eusebio of the Aspen Marketing staff on or about February 8, 2010, attempting to reach out in a friendly manner.  We also like and respect Karen Eusebio, but she is not in a position to change anything.

The problem here is not so much the conduct of the two Senior Vice Presidents and the executive director and the clinical director in this particular program as it is what it says about Aspen’s perception of what marketing is about.  The Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer was overtly abusive,  but that is minor.  The Clinical director was new to the business, perhaps nave, and doing what she was told.  The Executive Director reminds us of a playground bully, but perhaps we are just prejudiced by his appearance and manner of speaking.  That is minor.  

What is major is the appearance that Aspen simply does not have the knowledge or the desire to promote their programs on their merits but only in exchange for rewards and other tricks (like the web sites that appear to be neutral and objective but are not).  Whether the approach to Tom about exchanging the “curriculum” for some number of referrals was initially unambiguously intended as providing an item of value as a reward for referrals, what was absolutely clear is that they knew Tom understood it that way and he did not want to pursue the matter on that basis. Apparently, the executive director, the clinical director, and two Senior Vice presidents lacked the competence to understand how to promote a program on its merits and/or to handle an encounter with a referral source that wanted to judge a program on its merits and not on the basis of what he would get in return. Apparently the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Aspen shares that shortcoming.

Aspen President Jim Dredge profusely apologized for these behaviors and promised corrections in a phone call on May 14, 2009.  Three months later, we learned he was leaving Aspen and two months after that he was gone.  Those who remain have given no further attention to the matter.  This speaks volumes about the core value system that drives Aspen, CRC Health, and Bain Capital.

The Senior Vice President who directly supervised the program involved in this, thankfully, is no longer with Aspen. She was gone prior to the phone call with Jim Dredge.  The Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer still holds that position.  The clinical director was, at last report reaching us, still an Aspen employee but in another capacity.   We believe that the executive director of the facility involved remains in that position. We cannot have confidence in the integrity of Aspen, CRC Health Group or Bain Capital so long as these people remain in positions of responsibility, unless or until they openly acknowledge what was wrong with their conduct in this situation and demonstrate a change of behavior.  

Next Text on Aspen Marketing in Sequence -- Misuse of Outcome Studies (red link)   

Navigating the Aspen Marketing article

1.  Exploiting publicity about abuses in the field, attempting to project the image that Aspen Education is uniquely immune to these problems.  

Too often we hear of clinicians advising parents that sending their child to a therapeutic program away from home is only a good idea if it is an Aspen program.  Clinicians and other referring professionals who give that advice are likely falling victim to  .   .   .   (more)

2.  Web Advertising.  A further example of where we would like to see improvement at Aspen/ CRC Health Group involves their web advertising. We saw temporary improvement about the time we previously called public attention to this, but it appears the problem is back, or maybe it never left and we just missed it.    (more) 

          2a. Documentation

3. Quid pro quo marketing.  Quid pro quo marketing is providing some incentive, often an item of value in exchange for business.  It is not like the “cents off” coupon from your neighborhood grocery store; it is more like paying someone who appears to be a neutral source to tell you that is the best grocery store in town.  We are not accusing Aspen or CRC Health Group of actual payoffs or referral fees to educational consultants.  We will let you decide whether or not what we describe crosses any troubling lines.  (more)

              3a. Exorbitant perks

              3b. Special Events

           3c. External Referral

           3d. Information for Referral

4. Misuse of outcome studies (red link).

Aspen, to its great credit, commissioned an extensive outcome study blanketing its schools, excluding its wilderness programs. The problem arises when the study is used to convince others of the effectiveness of one school or treatment center, ignoring the fact that the results of many schools have been lumped together.   (more)

5.  Referral from one Aspen program to another.

When a person is referred to an Aspen school or program, upon completion of that stay Aspen generally refers back to the referral source, a common practice in their business.  When a person arrives at an Aspen program  .  .  .  (more)

Additional Links:

Return to main article on Aspen Education

Blog entry on closure of Mt. Bachelor Academy

Official web site of Aspen Education

Official web site of CRC Health Group

Official web site of Bain Capital

Return to Major Providers Index

Return to Individual Schools and Programs Index

Woodbury Reports links to Aspen Education

Feedback is invited. We will publish selected feedback.  Email

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of our information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it. We are not responsible for inaccuracies.

Last revised April 29, 2010

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