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McCrory’s reforms leave new MeckLINK in peril

The head of Mecklenburg County’s new network of managing mental health care applauded Gov. Pat McCrory’s Medicaid reforms Wednesday even though they throw the future of his agency in doubt.

Phil Endress, executive director of MeckLINK, said McCrory’s plan could lead to a simpler way to meet a patient’s mental and physical needs.

As of now, and unlike many other states, North Carolina separates behavioral care for Medicaid patients from other medical needs. That has led to a separate bureaucracy and a complicated system that often leaves patients confused on how to get care.

Yet, the new plan is the state’s fourth set of major reforms affecting mental health care in little more than decade. And it could lead to the dismantling of MeckLINK, which has been open for little more than a month and has cost county taxpayers millions of dollars in startup costs.

North Carolina already has a national reputation of changing mental health policies – often before it sees if they work.

In fact, McCrory’s reforms surface as the current ones are still being rolled out. By year’s end, 11 regional “managed care organizations” (MCOs), operating like private insurance companies, will supervise behavioral treatment for thousands of Medicaid or uninsured patients.

MeckLINK is one of them, and the only MCO operating as an arm of county government. It opened March 1. The county has spent at least $3 million to get it running.

Today, MeckLINK’s 192 employees operate a $280 million network that includes almost 300 providers.

Under McCrory’s plan, the state would go to three or four massive “Comprehensive Care Entities” to handle both mental and health needs of Medicaid participants statewide. He wants to have parts of the new system in place by July 2015.

Endress says he was caught off guard by McCrory’s announcement. He had company.

“All I can say is ‘wow,’ ” said Ellis Field, executive director of the Mental Health Association of the Central Carolinas. “What must our consumers of mental health services and their families be thinking with yet another major change being proposed?”

Fields, like Endress, questioned the timing – after “all the time and money we’ve so recently spent” statewide to roll out the MCOs.

Endress said the message to North Carolina’s mental health consumers should be “one of hope ... that this is an opportunity to bring mental health and primary health care together to treat the whole person, and hopefully have a better outcome.”

Asked about the potential impact of the governor’s plan on his own agency, Endress said, “Well it’s certainly placed a gray cloud on the day.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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