Mission Possible: How Starting To Solve America’s Opioid Epidemic Could Save 2018

By Penn Little | Penn is a freelance writer and entrepreneur who contributes for Forbes and SeekingAlpha.com. He lives in Chicago, IL, and may be reached at pennlittle@me.com.

Earthrise Photo taken by Astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. Source: NASA

Fifty years ago, America was divided and in an uproar, just as we presently see in 2018. I cannot say I remember, nor was I alive in 1968, but my love for history books enables me to ascertain many parallels. A History Channel web-based overview of the year lists the following highlights:

1. Prague Spring

2. The Tet Offensive

3. North Korea

4. LBJ Bedeviled by Vietnam

5. Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated

6. Students Protest All Over the World

7. Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated

8. Chicago Democratic National Convention

9. Olympic Protests

10. Nixon Wins the White House

11. Apollo 8 Orbits the Moon

Among these historic bullets, number 11 stands out. I recalled reading Jeffrey Kluger’s book, Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of The First Mission to the Moon.It brings to life the story of the voyage in which Colonel Frank Borman, Captain Jim Lovell, and General Bill Anders became the first men to fly (what is still to date) the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket mankind has ever flown: The Saturn V.

In addition, over the course of six days, they became the first men to leave Earth’s orbit as they made 10 laps around the moon, which included bearing witness to the first Earthrise in the consciousness of man. Then, they burned the Command Module SPS engine in its first attempt at exiting the lunar orbit and returned home to what (to them) seemed like such a small, but “good Earth”. This was emphasized by their reading from Genesis, Chapter 1, which was was broadcasted to millions around the world on Christmas Eve of 1968. Specifically in verse 31, the author (believed to be Moses) noted “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.”

YouTube Video of Broadcast on 12/24/68 | Source: NASA

In the epilogue of Kluger’s book, he states that the crew didn’t quite remember, in totality, all the congratulations they received upon returning. However, Colonel Borman recalled one congratulatory message, more than any other — a telegram from a sender whose name he didn’t remember and the words he’d never forget:

“Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Telegram to the crew

According to Astronaut Lovell,

“We got to the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, at the end of a poor year for this country. We had Vietnam. We had civil unrest. We had the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But we went around the moon and saw the far side for the first time. A script writer couldn’t have done a better job of raising people’s hope.”
Jim Lovell

The first eleven months of 2018 have not been much better than those of 1968. We have civil unrest, there’s no doubt about it. The negativity and fear are both contagious. We can’t seem to find a singular common bond, but a thousand different political arguments that divide us seem to be, simply, not enough. We’ve never been so afraid to be ourselves; and so, many lie so that they don’t have to be subjected to shaming. Today, three American astronauts broadcasting a scripture reading would undoubtedly be fired. I’m afraid we’d miss the entire point. We often miss the point today, as opposed to focusing on opportunities in the midst of chaos surrounding a problem.

Courageous Leadership

Personally, over the last decade, I’ve watched the unimaginable occur and have experienced the unthinkable. In 2008, I hit rock bottom, which ultimately landed me in jail and feeling hopeless. I thought I didn’t matter. I was a drug-addicted kid…lost, hopeless, and in pain. Then, I got a final shot at righting the sunken ship that was my 24-year-old life. I never thought my “God Shot” moment would come from a US Attorney who didn’t want to lock me up and throw away the key, but simply give me an appropriate and deserved consequence. I spent 11 months in intensive treatment then received another nine months of treatment in federal prison via the Bureau of Prisons’ Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP).

So, in 2011, when I left the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, TX to start a job in the very addiction treatment center that saved my life, I never dreamed I’d find a way to save much more.

Since then, I paid all debts to society, finished my BA, earned my MBA, and was fortunate to have some respectable people take an interest in me and expressed to me what they saw that I didn’t see in myself. It planted a seed of confidence that germinated a pay-it-forward attitude. Fortunately, I was subjected to some genuinely good people at that day in age. I started three businesses using tools of finance to drive better care for mental and behavioral illnesses, and exited all of them. I crawled out of the financial hole into a position to really do some good. I tend to agree with Apollo 8 Astronaut Lovell, who also said,

“Be thankful for problems; if they were less difficult, someone with less ability would have your job.”
Jim Lovell

I didn’t know it, but the lessons of mentors and leaders I trusted had helped me become ready for the 0–2 curveball life was about to throw low and inside.

Eventually, I’d discover the secret to navigating our way out of the proverbial 0–2 hole lies within each and every one of us. I firmly believe that. The catalyst is always courageous, inspirational, and transparent leadership.

The Curveball

In September 2017, after selling my third business to watch it scale and help more people, I recognized a rather massive problem.

Frantically, I searched for a highly reasonable, executable, and plausible solution…and learned nothing meaningful can be found frantically. That lesson would ultimately lead me to the solution.

My view became that the financial structure of the largest tool we must use to fight a national (opioid) epidemic was collapsing. So, I called up a friend and former Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist, Alan Schwarz, and told him about it. I feared the fraud, abuse, and investment triggered by a potent legislative cocktail– two aspects of healthcare reform — posed a financial systemic risk.

When asking my dad, a rancher and independent oil and natural gas producer, about the downside of finance, the 71-year-old Wharton grad said,

“Son, back in the seventies, when the oil market was all volatile, I just got on Braniff, flew up to New York, and bought options on the NYMEX.”
Jud Little

Since Braniff doesn’t exist anymore, nor does that simple type of trading, I got on Upwork.com and found another well-published author who knew how to translate my father’s advice into modern terms. Jea Yu, a financial market strategist and trader, was working from his basement in Maryland. He, Alan, and I studied and devised a solution, as well as built a team.

Cultivating Agility

It was a bit surreal that Alan wanted to help me. He had gone as far as to break the ice regarding the seriousness of concussions in football through 100 articles for the New York Times. It was also unique that one of the best friends I would ever find was in a basement in Maryland.

In early 2018, it was Alan who produced a video that clearly laid out our plan: to use my thesis, short-sell various collapsing healthcare entities, take our portion of outsized returns, and buy back-in to the distressed industry. Then, we could begin validating trauma-informed care, as well as working with teaching hospitals to prove what works, so as to offer reduced costs to patients with addictions. This is much like what MD Anderson did with cancer in the 1960s.

However, the pushback from the populous and banks was very widespread. It seemed now that I was driving against traffic. I was constantly dodging. In terms of easy scapegoats to use when denying key services to operate, I became the banking sector’s proverbial ‘BFF’.

Ultimately, in late January, we identified one bank willing to provide us key services: Wells Fargo. I didn’t know then what I would later find out. I had been “flagged” by a secret pre-emptive regulation system used by banks, normally to prevent money laundering, and in this case, apparently to bar us from drawing attention to the very flawed system that predicated my fears.

We pressed forward into spring. Then, out of nowhere, in April, Wells Fargo was subjected to sanctions for opening millions of fake accounts, which meant we no longer qualified nor met the criteria needed to attain their services. My felony conviction made it too darn hairy regardless of the tremendous success I had enjoyed as an asset manager with my last company.

I was devastated.

Nonetheless, this special group kept showing up. Jea, assisted by two young women named Sarah Poe and Tierra Baer-Warndahl, stepped up in the absence of my passion. They compiled an application for a presidential pardon on my behalf, hoping we could keep the dream alive and also avoid a team of people needing new jobs. We tried, but found that Washington was like a fortress…and my budget was akin to handing mere pennies to a gatekeeper who only accepts gold bricks. The pardon attorney said, “He didn’t meet with the public,” and my failure to know what to do allowed me to hear silence speak.

I went fishing with two friends in late April to early May, mostly to think. While at the airport, I bought a 3x4-inch booklet copy of The Constitution of the United States of America.

Uncovering the Corrosion

In the process of experiencing pushback, I would come to find that the world’s largest and publicly-traded standalone provider of addiction treatment was at risk of collapsing and potentially taking an entire much-needed industry with it. This entity grew from six facilities to over 580, just inside of six years by pursuing a “leveraged-buyout” strategy that, at face value, appears very risky. According to a previous employee of the founder, the strategy intended to purposely overpay for facilities and treatment centers, primarily using debt to finance them.

This company seemed not only to be paying artificially inflated valuations, but simultaneously driving valuations higher and raising the bar with each buyout.

Why would a company purposely pay $200 for an asset worth $100? The answer is simple: goodwill. The excess $100 that was overpaid gets posted as goodwill in the ledger, which is an asset that can be borrowed against. This cycle of recycling and levering imaginary assets merely kicks the can down the road in a zero-interest-rate-policy (ZIRP) period. Unfortunately, it starts to unravel when interest rates start to rise during a monetary tightening phase. This phase is upon us now. The overwhelming debt load and shrinking growth from a Franken-network that prioritized earnings results at the expense of patient quality was bound to collapse. This could only lead to a #metoo movement stemming from families who have had children die or fall victim to a range of abuses in addiction treatment centers.

So without much else to do, I somehow took my journals, and with the help of a Stanford-trained physician, Dr. Drea Burbank, turned them into literature.

Uncovering Harbingers of Contagion

My first article in Forbes was published the day after John Oliver of Last Week Tonight decided to cover the substance abuse industry madness that I witnessed for the past seven years.Then days later, two well-known addiction treatment conglomerates, Elements Behavioral Health and Sovereign Health, imploded.

The writing was on the wall.

With this, the yearning to find a way was exacerbated to a new level. Our trusted entrepreneurial litigator, Pete Stasiewicz, who is as much a key part of this effort as any, suggested I find a civil liberties expert.

One name came to mind. I emailed Alan Dershowitz, a retired professor from Harvard Law School, who quickly replied by saying, “Call me,” along with stating his cell phone number. Over the next several weeks, he kindly advised me and the remnants of the team out of the kindness of his heart. He sent us back to DC to seek a pardon, as it was the only constitutional avenue available to us.

Jea and I commenced a painstaking grind on the banks of the Potomac, sweating out suits and ties in the summer heat. For two months, we pounded pavement and hit office after office on Capitol Hill as we pursued an awareness initiative based on our findings and forecasts of the impending industry collapse. We offered our private sector solution and pleaded for either legislation to aid us or to show the need for a meeting with the Trump administration, in which we could make the case for a pardon, as it barricaded our bi-partisan effort. We even petitioned the Vice President’s office to form a special committee.

Bureaucracy Abounds

Ultimately, our perseverance elevated us to second meetings with lawyers as opposed to entry-level staffers. That was due to the added help of a Chicago-based former congressional staffer, Kristen Caron and my former triathlon coach, Army Sgt. Nathan Dressel, both of whom helped us to secure a meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on The Constitution’s legal team.

Myself, in a photo Jea took, drinking a Dr. Pepper from the massive stock of soda refrigerated for visitors and constiutents in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex)’s office

This was a result of lodging a petition to compel legislationin order to hurdle the regulatory burdens that prevented us from pursuing our backstop solutions. It was simply a result of consulting my pocketbook-style copy of The Constitution and reading Section 5 of the 14thAmendment.

Our objective was to bring light and be empowered to do something about the crumbling infrastructure of the so-called war on the opioid crisis. We planted the seeds of awareness that I hope will break ground to salvage the few quality centers of excellence that truly care.

Unfortunately, despite being a bi-partisan platform, congressional embodiment of a template to react ‘after the fallout’ still stood firm.

I recall one day in the corridor of the Rayburn House office building after meeting the staff of my district’scongressman, Danny Davis (D-IL). We had a call with Professor Dershowitz about the advocacy strategy, in which he said we needed to plant seeds, but “…in the meantime, you must simultaneously find a different way to get this done.”

We then planted as many seeds as we could muster and gave it every bit we could, but the wise professor proved to be right. We would have to find another way and wait for the rain.

Rebuilding the Team

So, in July of this year, after pounding pavement wasn’t proved fruitless, everything seemed to begin unraveling. I took a break to help someone close to me that was battling their own mental illness. Then, when I was remarkably defeated, a big light appeared in the darkness.

Dom Bickus (Left) and Jea Yu (right) at 11:24pm on 8/29/18 in New York City (Grinding out The Data)

That light was a 24-year-old Lithuanian immigrant named Dominykas Bickus. I met Dom, a young financial advisor, last February, in his office. He became an American at age seven and settled in Chicago with his family. He would go on to play college football for the Kansas Jayhawks as a walk-on before earning a business degree and becoming a banker at Merrill Lynch. Dom had come to admire and empathize with our plight. Not afraid of hard knocks, he abruptly quit the bank, determined to lend a hand by saying, “This may blow up in our faces and we might fail, but we gotta at least try.”

It wasn’t long before another young, bright, professional woman whom I helped mentor early on called me up, wanting to join the team. Katie Mikles, 24 years old as well, spoke of her own spiritual awakening and exhibited evidence of a transformation.

Mother Teresa said, “Peace begins with a smile.” And that’s what Katie appeared to say. She had evolved from a risk-averse kid with experience at a Fortune 500 company to a determined woman with an insatiable appetite of becoming a visionary. It was Dom who restored my grit and confidence, and Katie who restored my passion and optimism.

Myself (right) and Katie Mikles (Left) on 10/16/18 on a California fact-finding trip

The infectious energy of youth welded with righteous intent and unwavering commitment revitalized my initiative to drive forward. Since then, we’ve compiled more in-depth research from quantitative angles, as advised by Ben Hockett of Cornwall Capital Partners, who is immortalized in the film, The Big Short (portrayed by Brad Pitt). Hockett’s real and unbiased criticism is not common on Wall Street, and his level of kindness and honesty is hard to find anywhere.

We engaged and galvanized an alliance of advocates, supporters, and ‘good actors’ intent on reshaping the industry with data-driven, outcomes-based treatment solutions that prioritized quality over margins.

The Parallel

If we were the Apollo 8 crew, Dom would be the impermeable Lovell, who would calmly bring his crew home safely after an explosion nearly doomed the Apollo 13 mission. Many remember how calmly and clearly he said, “Houston, we have a problem,” explaining the deadly explosion to the mission control staff. He never flinched or let the fear erode his confidence in his crew, but more importantly, himself. That’s Dom.

Katie would be Bill Anders, who on the fourth orbit, took the iconic and equally famous photo of the Earthrise. When Lovell ran out of camera film on that fourth orbit out of 10, hoping the iconic picture was captured properly, the optimistic Anders said on the radio,

“It will come up again”
William “Bill” Anders

This event was best portrayed in the 1998 Mini-Series, From the Earth to the Moon (Video Below).

HBO Mini Series “From the Earth To The Moon. Source HBO/Youtube

That remark is the embodiment of Katie and her role: confidently restoring optimism and positivity to a team that desperately needed it.

Of course, I have the fortunate opportunity to be the leader. In the first days of the mission, Borman, the mission’s commander, experienced flu-like symptoms, was vomiting, and had a fever much of the way to the moon. By no means am I Frank Borman; however, he’s certainly a role model. His ability to entrust in his crew and press forward, even when he was unable, is a testament to his faith in others. We all have those people. They allow us to break down walls and make things happen.

Then there’s the thousands of others supporting the journey, such as Jea, Alan, and others critical to making the impossible possible.

Borman said of Apollo 8,

“It gave a lot of people hope on Earth and transcended national boundaries.”
Frank Borman

Full Circle

It’s my belief thesolution to America’s opioid crisis would also do just that. It’s a problem everyone acknowledges, with more understanding it each day. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids kill more than 115 people each day. For reference, that’s a daily death toll that’s just five human lives short of the amount of people killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, the Virginia Tech tragedy, and the Las Vegas shooting combined.

This wildly surreal 14-month journey culminated in the publication of our findings on SeekingAlpha.com in an edited, published article titled Acadia Healthcare: Very Scary Findings From a 14-Month Investigation.

That was a supplication for veracity. This is a call to action.

Since, I’ve received heartfelt letters of gratitude from victims of patient abuse and families who have had children die. They inspire me to do the right thing. I’ve also received insults and threats that remind me of the high stakes involved. Nonetheless, the challenge to spearhead awareness and change in this industry is the cross we bear daily. We do it to give voice to the afflicted and suffering in silence and shame.

As a licensed pilot, like the three who piloted Apollo 8, I’ve learned being proactive and reactive are separate actions. Pilots, as well as leaders, have to do both at once…or lives can be lost. We must accept reality and act. This is best summarized by my friend, the late Reverend Guy Davidson from Arizona, who would say,

“You can’t unscramble eggs, but you can make a damn good omelette.”
Guy Davidson

The Why

Our great country is the land of second chances. I’m a firm believer in this. Recovery, too, is a second chance for those struggling to break the shackles of addiction. I was blessed to experience what works. So, we envision the rebirth of an industry that manifests an optimized solution at the apex of economic viability and effective treatment outcomes centered on high-quality patient care, not earnings per share.

The solution is always in people, and I am ever confident that with the help of many of you out there, our solution can be converted into a reality. Hundreds of thousands individuals worked and some gave their lives to go to the moon in December 1968, ultimately allowing 12 Americans to explore it. This would, in turn, realize the vision of our 35th President, Jack Kennedy. All it took was a leader who, in a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, said, “I believe this nation should commit itself.” He also made it clear in that speech that,

“Our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people, their willingness to pay the price for these programs, to understand and accept a long struggle, to share their resources with other less fortunate people.”
John F. Kennedy

We still have plenty of time to save 2018. All it takes is something to rally around. I hope each of us can do our part.

Why do I choose the opioid epidemic? Well, for the same reasons President Kennedy chose the moon: because it would save 1968 and do so much more. It inspires me today. So, I add that reason by concluding with an excerpt (Photo below. Source: Kennedy Presidential Library) from his speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”
John F. Kennedy