N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos ruled Friday that supervision of millions of dollars in Medicaid and state funding for Mecklenburg’s mental health services will stay with the county-run MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare.
The decision reverses an earlier ruling by former acting DHHS Secretary Albert Delia – upheld initially by Wos – that took the program from the county and assigned it to a Kannapolis-based agency. A review had found MeckLINK wouldn’t be ready to start by Feb. 1.
But Wos gave the county a month’s reprieve after Mecklenburg threatened to appeal the matter to an administrative law judge. A final review this week found MeckLINK ready to go live March 1.
Friday’s ruling saves the jobs of more than 240 MeckLINK employees and justifies Mecklenburg spending more than $3 million to prepare the agency for running a managed-care organization.
The decision was cheered by many of the 155,000 Mecklenburg residents who rely on the yearly $215 million in Medicaid and state money for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services.
“It’s good news for Mecklenburg County, but also for the families that are going to be affected,” said Doug Sea, a Charlotte attorney who handles Medicaid cases for Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
Wos’ ruling is also some redemption for County Manager Harry Jones and his staff. They were criticized after the state abruptly announced in late December that it was pulling the Medicaid money from MeckLINK and assigning it to the Kannapolis agency.
Some Mecklenburg commissioners felt blindsided by the announcement and potential loss of MeckLINK. They said it was another example poor communications between county staff and the board.
Yet on Jones’s recommendation, commissioners decided to fight the takeover. They hire Charlotte attorney Dan Bishop, a former commissioner, to pursue legal relief.
The matter never had to go to a judge, after Wos agreed last month to extend a “go-live” deadline to March 1, with one stipulation. MeckLINK would get two more readiness reviews by Mercer Government Human Services Consulting. If the agency flunked either one, Wos would assign the program to another outside agency.
Wos on Friday said they passed both.
“The independent readiness reviews provided us with a detailed look at the progress that has been made in Mecklenburg County,” Wos said in a statement Friday. “We are pleased to continue moving toward full implementation … by July.”
Jones and Michelle Lancaster, a county general manager, were pleased too.
Lancaster said the decision was the right one for families. She, too, gave much of the credit to MeckLINK and to commissioners for their support to keep the program in the county.
“The staff did an excellent job showing Mercer that they were fully capable of implementing this by March 1,” she said. “It’s the right decision by the secretary, and it was the right thing to keep this service in Mecklenburg County. That was our motivation – doing what’s right for the community.”
Commission Chair Pat Cotham has been the most critical of Jones and his managers. Friday, she received Wos’ ruling as “great news” and praised lawyer Dan Bishop, Jones, his managers and MeckLINK staffers for their commitment and work to keep the Medicaid program.
“There’s a lot of credit to go around, and it’s not just with the senior staff,” Cotham said.
At the time, she felt the board needed to unanimously support the fight for MeckLINK “to show the state we were serious about this.” She knew the six Democratic commissioners would vote yes. But for the three Republicans to support hiring Bishop and wage a fight “took real courage. I am grateful to them.”
Most of all, she praised her board: “We’re the ones who made the decision to go forward. We rolled the dice and I’m glad we did. I’m glad for the people who didn’t lose their jobs, I’m glad for the families and keeping the services local. And I’m glad for how (commissioners) came together on this – the problems we’ve had forced us to gel as a board.”