Recovering alcoholic built Kentucky’s largest substance-use treatment provider, which has 1,800 beds and 1,350 employees

By Deborah Yetter
Kentucky Lantern

LOUISA, Ky. — Around the office at Addiction Recovery Care, Vanessa Keeton is still known as “Client One” — marking her status as the first client of the first recovery center ARC opened as a group home in Lawrence County.

But her official title is vice president of marketing, where she has worked since 2012, a little more than a year after she entered the program known as Karen’s House — choosing it over jail for a string of drug and alcohol-related offenses.

“Dec. 2, 2010, that was my first day,” she said. “That’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live. That’s the day that everything changed.”

ARC, too, has changed dramatically since it started as a treatment home for women run by volunteers, based largely on Bible study and prayer.

It now operates as a for-profit company paid $130 million last year by Medicaid, the federal-state health plan which in 2014 expanded access to addiction treatment, or substance-use disorder, as it’s now known.

Gov. Andy Beshear has praised ARC for helping Kentucky — ravaged in recent years by addiction and overdose deaths — become the state with the most treatment beds per resident in the nation, according to an East Tennessee State University study.

“With the help of organizations like ARC, we are working to build a safer, healthier commonwealth for our people,” Beshear said, speaking at an ARC ribbon-cutting for a new facility in March.

Owned by founder and CEO Tim Robinson and his wife, Lelia, the company provides the couple an annual income of about $533,400, according to a 2022 tax-filing by Odyssey Inc., a non-profit affiliated with ARC.

Robinson said he and his wife struggled financially for years while establishing the treatment business — facing potential foreclosure on their home and repossession of their car. He doesn’t think that income is unreasonable.

“We took a lot of risks,” said Robinson, 48, a lawyer and recovered alcoholic who says he has been sober since 2006 — two years before he started building the faith-based treatment business that would become ARC. “I’m living the American dream. I’m doing better than I ever thought I could be doing financially.”

Kentucky’s largest providerThe fast-growing company is by far the state’s largest substance-use treatment provider, with 1,800 residential beds in 24 Kentucky counties, and reaches hundreds more clients through outpatient services. ARC, which estimates it provides 75% of treatment beds in Kentucky, also is planning programs in Ohio and Virginia.

Earlier this year, ARC opened a 40-bed behavioral health unit with plans to expand to 300 at the former Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in Ashland, which closed in 2020. In 2020, ARC opened its largest center — with a capacity for 700 — on the campus of St. Catharine College in Springfield, which closed in 2016.

ARC is no longer simply a treatment organization, said Matt Brown, a former ARC client who overcame addiction and now serves as ARC’s chief administrative officer and president of ARC Healthcare. “We view ourselves as a behavioral health system,” Brown said.

While Christian faith remains at the heart of its mission, ARC relies on professional therapists, medical specialists including nurses and doctors, a structured treatment program and medication such as Suboxone to reduce the cravings of some patients for drugs and help them maintain sobriety, Robinson said.

Its religious component — which includes tracking how many clients decide “to follow Christ” (1,320 in 2023) — is strictly voluntary, according to Robinson, who said he was able to get sober in 2006 with the help of a local pastor and friend who “led me to the Lord.”

More importantly, he said, is that the number of clients who agree to stay in long-term treatment up to six months has increased steadily, which he thinks is the best indicator of effectiveness of the program.

Medicaid, which funds the majority of substance treatment, doesn’t require programs to measure outcomes.

But ARC measures its own outcomes, which it reports to Medicaid quarterly, Robinson said. That includes a retention rate of around 70% of its clients in treatment for up to six months and even longer through periodic contact with a case manager.

“I’ve been in this a long time,” Robinson said. “Long-term residential treatment is the reason people recover.”

As an indicator of success in addressing addiction, the Beshear administration points to the decline, for the second year in a row, of overdose deaths in Kentucky.

The state’s latest overdose report, released in June, shows a decrease in deaths to 1,984 from 2,200 the year before, a decline of 9.8%.

Last year, ARC received about $130 million in payments from Kentucky’s Medicaid program — more than double the amount of its closest competitor, Spero Health, a Nashville- based company that received $60 million in Kentucky Medicaid funds in 2023, according to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which licenses and oversees treatment facilities and Medicaid.

ARC accepts private insurance, but Robinson and Brown said almost all of the company’s revenue is from Medicaid, since their clients generally have lost jobs and any health insurance because of addiction.

The state spent $1.2 billion on substance-use-disorder services in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2023, with most funds coming from the federal government, according to the cabinet.

Robinson, a former county prosecutor who started his business from a home office in Louisa, has emerged as a major political donor and well-connected business leader who recently joined the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce board.

Beshear singled out Robinson for recognition in his State of the Commonwealth speech in January, calling him “an essential partner in our fight against addiction.”

Robinson, a lifelong Republican, is effusive in praise for Beshear, a Democrat, in part because of the governor’s emphasis on addiction treatment and the governor’s frequent references to his own religious faith.

“I’ve never been for anybody like I’ve been for Andy Beshear,” Robinson said. “I hope he runs for president.”

‘Treatment on demand’

ARC employs 1,350 people, 500 at its headquarters in Louisa, population 2,600, perched above the forks of the Big Sandy River, across from West Virginia. The company is Lawrence County’s largest employer, even more than the school system.About 40% of its workers are “graduates” of its treatment program, Robinson said, and most of its upper management — himself included — are in recovery from addiction.ARC promises “treatment on demand,” and operates a 24-hour hotline people can call to identify help within 15 minutes, including transportation, if needed, to one of its centers. Last year it served more than 12,000 individuals from 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

It has developed a network of job-training programs including welding, automotive repair, lawn service, culinary arts, chaplaincy and food service. As part of that, ARC has rebuilt more than a block of rundown buildings in downtown Louisa into a coffee shop, commercial kitchen, community theater and an event space.

It offers clients a chance to get certification toward a trade and get college credit for some training.

ARC owns a pharmacy used to provide medication to clients, a laboratory for medical testing and operates a health clinic in Louisa. Also, Tim and Lelia Robinson founded the private Millard School, a Christian academy in Louisa attended by some children of their employees.

Vanessa Keeton and her husband James live in Louisa and their son attends the Millard School. James, a 2011 ARC graduate, manages the Second Chance garage which repairs and restores vehicles for the public as well as maintaining an ARC fleet of about 200. “We restore cars and we restore lives,” he said.

ARC runs a sophisticated marketing program complete with a website, billboards, television and radio commercials, a social media presence, sponsorships and news releases, contracting with the Louisville-based public relations firm, RunSwitch. Scott Jennings, a CNN commentator and Republican political consultant, is one of RunSwitch’s founding partners. ARC spends about 4.5% of its revenue, or about $5.8 million a year on marketing.

Vanessa Keeton said the marketing is important to promote awareness of its services to those in need, “to meet people where you are.”

‘Dangerously brilliant’?

Some outsiders criticize ARC for its rapid growth, its size and Robinson’s political giving, including Mark La Palme, the founder and former CEO of Isaiah House, a treatment program based in Harrodsburg.

La Palme, now retired, said he worked with Robinson on a project in the mid-2000s but parted ways over disagreement with practices including designating clients as “interns” in ARC programs for low pay while in treatment, saving the company the cost of paying a regular employee.

He calls ARC “huge,” has called it a “bully” in a social media post and questions its rapid expansion. La Palme also questions the prolific giving of Robinson and ARC entities, which rank among the state’s major political contributors.

“It seems like you’re buying political influence,” he said.

But he acknowledges that Robinson has been highly effective in building ARC into the state’s largest treatment system: “He’s dangerously brilliant.”

Robinson said he considered La Palme a friend and colleague but they parted ways after a proposed collaboration fell through. Robinson said ARC’s programs meet all state standards, are accredited and the company works to provide high quality care.

He said internships are a way of introducing people to job skills they will need to succeed once they leave treatment and interns in various job training programs receive a paycheck either through ARC or an outside employer.

Robinson said he doesn’t apologize for political giving, seeing it as a way to support causes and politicians he believes in.

And he doesn’t think ARC is too big, saying that the company had to expand to remain viable within the constraints of Medicaid reimbursement, which pays for most of its clients. “We had to grow to survive,” he said.

The Robinson employees who spoke with Kentucky Lantern, including Brown, are highly enthusiastic about the boss.Brown, trained as a physical therapist, battled addiction for 18 years before coming to ARC as a patient and remaining as an employee.

Robinson is “a visionary,” Brown said during a tour of ARC properties in Louisa, “He sees things in people before they see it in themselves.”

‘Papaw taught me’

Robinson said he grew up in adjoining Martin County, in “the poorest part” of a poor county. His introduction to business came from his grandfather who owned a country store. “He put me on a pop carton to run the cash register,” he said. “Papaw taught me about business.”Another boyhood business venture of Robinson’s — selling baseball cards — would provide a life-changing entrée into college and law school, when he was befriended by Inez banker and businessman Mike Duncan, a former Republican national chairman and mentor to many young people in Martin County.Robinson said he and Duncan crossed paths when he began selling baseball cards to Duncan’s son, Robert M. “Rob” Duncan, who was appointed U.S. attorney for Eastern Kentucky under Donald Trump. Duncan is now the top deputy to state Attorney General Russell Coleman.Robinson said he considers both Duncans friends but remains closest to Mike Duncan, a trusted friend and adviser. He said Mike Duncan, showed interest in his boyhood baseball-card venture and became a mentor, encouraging Robinson to go to college — a prospect he hadn’t considered.

“Nobody in my family ever went to college,” Robinson said.

But with Duncan’s encouragement, Robinson graduated from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, earned a law degree from the University of Kentucky and was elected student body president at both institutions.

Good times and bad times

“He helped me through the good times and the bad times,” Robinson said.Among the worst times: Robinson’s 2003 indictment for felony vote fraud while he was student body president at UK, after some 750 voter registration cards collected during a student government drive were never turned in. Apparently forgotten, they were later found in a student-government office, according to a 2003 Lexington Herald-Leader story.“It was devastating,” Robinson said. “I thought my whole life was over.”Instead, with the help of his lawyers, Robinson pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge of failing to turn in the registration cards and paid $90 restitution. Robinson said he dropped out of law school during the legal case, but was readmitted and graduated.

But that ordeal, plus the death of his mother while he was at UK, “finished my mental health off,” Robinson said. He returned home to Eastern Kentucky to work but alcohol by then had a powerful hold on his life.

Back in Lawrence County, Robinson joined in law practice with a friend and became an assistant county attorney but by then said he had become a “raging alcoholic” though still somehow able to perform his job.He would drink on weekends, come to work on Mondays hung over and avoid alcohol on days he had to be in court. Toward the end of the week, Robinson said, he’d resume drinking and stay drunk till the following Monday. “I was leading kind of a double life,” he said.

That continued until a deputy sheriff at the courthouse where Robinson worked intervened. The deputy, also a pastor and a recovering alcoholic, helped Robinson stop drinking through prayer and support — taking him with him to nightly events where he would preach and play Bluegrass music.

Though Robinson said he knew nothing about treatment or programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, he decided he needed to expand services in the region that in the mid-2000s offered little.

“I was convinced God was calling me to stop practicing law and start a recovery center,” Robinson said.

So he did, leaving his law job and starting out of a home office on Nov. 3, 2008.

Robinson got help from Rev. Ralph Beiting, a Catholic priest who founded the Christian Appalachian Project. Together they opened a recovery house for women in Lawrence County called Karen’s House.

It was a makeshift operation run by volunteers with donated goods, including some old Army cots. Meanwhile, Robinson was taking men to the closest treatment center, Chad’s Hope in Clay County, getting occasional funding from Operation UNITE, launched in 2003 by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers to help Kentucky battle rising addiction — in particular the tide of opioid pain pills engulfing the state.

But broke and discouraged, Robinson was close to quitting when he contacted a consultant who suggested he expand by opening a second recovery center for men. He located a site in Fleming County and in 2013, Belle Grove Springs was opened by the company that would become ARC.

Brown, now ARC’s chief administrative officer, was among the first clients admitted to the men’s center.

The following year, under the expansion authorized by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Medicaid began funding substance use disorder services and a reliable funding stream opened. Kentucky was among the first states to include addiction as a service covered by Medicaid.

While the income was welcome, it wasn’t enough to finance ARC’s operation and Robinson said the company’s only choice was to expand and recoup more money through a higher volume of clients. “People thought we were growing because we were booming but we had to grow to survive,” he said. “You cannot make it on a couple of small facilities.”

ARC didn’t show a positive cash flow until 2019, he said.

‘Take our time’

While ARC expansion has slowed, Robinson said the company is still looking at other opportunities, including expansion into Virginia, which has far fewer treatment beds than Kentucky. “We’re going to take our time,” he said.

ARC also was flagged in a budget item this year by the state General Assembly with a $12 million allocation over two years directed to the Life Learning Center in Covington, an organization aimed at helping people develop skills to improve their lives “through gainful employment.”

The budget line says the funds are to be distributed to the center to support “treatment, rehabilitation, and community reintegration in partnership with Odyssey Inc.,” the non-profit arm affiliated with ARC.

Robinson said he expects Odyssey to submit a proposal as treatment provider for a program the center plans to establish in Somerset.

And while his work has expanded statewide and beyond, Robinson said he’s committed to staying in Louisa and keeping his company headquartered there.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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