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Dr. Joseph Lee was named CEO of the Minnesota-based Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation just over a year ago, taking the helm of the largest nonprofit provider of addiction treatment and mental health services in the United States. He stepped into the top job amid the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented burnout among health care workers and rising mental health and substance abuse issues.

But Lee, a psychiatrist who was the foundation's medical director of youth services for 11 years, is optimistic that its work expanding hybrid in-person and virtual programs and improving access to services will help meet the challenges.

"I think there's so much potential to help communities in new ways, and we're uniquely positioned in that way," he said. "Even in this difficult time with the pandemic and inflation and everything, what a privilege this is, what a historic moment this is, what an honor it is to be at this position."

Lee oversees nearly 1,700 employees and a $218.9 million annual budget. He's also the first physician and person of color to lead Hazelden Betty Ford in its 73 years. And at the age of 46, he's the foundation's youngest CEO ever.

"It's been a privilege because of the symbolism. I think a lot of our team members, a lot of our patients, see hope in the future," he said of being the first person of color to lead the organization.

Hazelden Betty Ford, which is headquartered in Center City, started in 1949 as Hazelden and merged in 2014 with the California-based Betty Ford Center. It also has facilities in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Last year, the foundation served more than 25,000 people, about 20% more than in 2017. While most of its revenue comes from patient services, narrowing profit margins have spurred the organization to look for new ways to boost philanthropy. Last month it reported a surprise $8 million donation, the largest gift it's ever received.

Lee said Hazelden Betty Ford also is diversifying its board of trustees and staff, reexamining hiring procedures to ensure equity and adding culturally-specific options, such as mental health services in Spanish.

For Lee, a Korean immigrant, the work is personal. He came to the U.S. from Seoul with his parents and older sister when he was 7 and grew up in Oklahoma. While studying philosophy in college he volunteered at a mental health hospital, sparking a new passion and career path. By 25, he was a medical student at Duke University and a U.S. citizen.

Lee lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Jill, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Minnesota, and their two sons, ages 10 and 5. He's on the board of the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation. He recently spoke to the Star Tribune about his first year as CEO. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s headquarters in Center City, Minn.
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s headquarters in Center City, Minn.

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

Q: What was the last year like as the new CEO of a massive organization responding to a pandemic, rising overdose deaths and an unprecedented demand for mental health services?

A: It was a challenge, but it was also incredibly inspirational because I saw our nurses, our housekeeping staff, our counselors step up with limited resources. They answered the call ... Addiction is a disease of loneliness and isolation, so we predicted that if people are cut off from each other that they were going to suffer. And now the statistics are bearing that out.

Q: How do you think your background prepared you for this job?

A: I understand what good world-class clinical care looks like, how hard that is to deliver. ... It's not just an algorithm or throwing medications at a problem, it's a holistic solution.

Q: The number of inquiries Hazelden Betty Ford received soared 81% from 2020 to 2021. How are you responding to the rising need?

A: Our clinical staff we can't hire fast enough because the demand is really high ... We're trying to use technology and hybrid options ... expand our mental health services, our family services and our children's program services.

Q: Hazelden Betty Ford had a deficit in 2020 and 2021. How are your financials so far in 2022 and what does the organization need to do to be financially stable in the future?

A: Government aid during the pandemic was quite helpful. [Hazelden Betty Ford received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of $10.3 million and $5.9 million in CARES Act funding.] This year alone, our revenue continues to increase but the challenge of this year will be inflation.

Q: The nonprofit quietly launched an eight-year $500 million campaign in 2020 and raised a record $15 million last year. Are you looking to philanthropy to play a bigger role in sustaining your budget?

A: We want philanthropy to play a bigger role, period. Philanthropy helps us with some of the necessary capital and also helps us synergize with communities on very important projects.

Q: The health care industry is facing higher staff burnout and a dire workforce shortage. Has Hazelden experienced that as well?

A: Yeah, maybe not to the extent of other organizations or hospitals, but staffing challenges are everywhere ... Our investments in them [staffing, citing competitive pay and benefits, career advancement and workplace culture] and in our grad school, in the long run, I'm very hopeful for.

Q: When you started as CEO, you said one of your top priorities would be to increase diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. In what way are you doing that?

A: The grad school ... is intentionally trying to create pathways for equity. I think you have to look at everything that you do ... I believe it's going to take a generational effort.

Q: Minnesota has wide racial disparities, including among overdose deaths. How are your programs working to reach more communities of color?

A: We've been able to partner with 50 to 60 Native American communities across the country and we partner with Spanish-speaking communities ... and we've had a partnership with Turning Point [a Minneapolis treatment center that specializes in services for African Americans].

Q: Drug overdose deaths spiked by 22% in 2021 in Minnesota. Besides your programs, what else needs to be done to lower alcohol and drug abuse?

A: The system overall still is too fragmented [between mental health care and addiction treatment]. And I think people also need to harness the power of communities, and the recovery community specifically. People need to connect with each other in order to heal.