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Committee to recommend MeckLINK transfer to Cardinal

As expected, a committee of four Mecklenburg County commissioners will recommend to the full board Tuesday to authorize negotiations to transfer mental health services from the county to Kannapolis-based Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions.

With the merger, MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare would dissolve and Cardinal would get its 120,000 consumers and nearly $200 million in Medicaid funding the county uses each year to provide an array of services.

Yet if the negotiations don’t go well – and there are some sticking points – the county would essentially walk away and tell state health officials to do what they want when MeckLINK’s contract expires March 31, according to the motion approved 4-0 by the committee.

The developments come 10 months after state health officials attempted to reassign MeckLINK to Cardinal in late December. After Mecklenburg threatened to sue, state health officials reconsidered and allowed the county to continue to operate and govern the agency.

But in June, state legislators passed a law that forced MeckLINK to operate under a single-county, independent authority or merge with an existing multi-county authority by April 1.

Commissioners decided that a single-county start-up would be too expensive.

On Monday, the committee met with Cardinal CEO Pam Shipman and three other Cardinal officials on issues that have emerged in recent weeks.

They include:

• Commissioners wanting proportionate representation on Cardinal’s governing board if the merger goes through. They want to appoint four members of a 13-member board. Shipman explained that Mecklenburg would have a five-member community oversight board to deal with local issues, concerns or complaints. The chair of that board would be on the government board, and Cardinal is holding open two positions for healthcare experts from Mecklenburg.

“I want to get better clarity on whether that would just be experts from Mecklenburg, or are they people representing Mecklenburg’s interests?” said Commissioner Trevor Fuller, the committee’s chair.

• Minimizing disruption to consumers and providers. Shipman said that would be Cardinal’s goal too. She said all providers in good standing with MeckLINK would be taken by Cardinal on April 1.

• Assurances from Cardinal officials that they would hire at least most of MeckLINK’s 200 employees. Shipman said it would hire as many workers in good standing with MeckLINK as it could, but they wouldn’t automatically be offered a job. Instead, they’d go through some hiring process.

Cardinal, she said, would have to put together a staffing plan before it decides how many it can hire. “We understand that staff will start leaving if they get worried,” Shipman said. “Our HR folks will work with yours’ to get this process going so staff has certainty about what the future will be.”

MeckLINK employees who transfer would no longer be in the state retirement system since Cardinal is private and has a 401k plan. There’s no guarantee that salaries would remain the same and MeckLINK vacation and sick time won’t automatically transfer to Cardinal.

Shipman said Cardinal is building a facility in Charlotte and would likely build two if the transfer takes place.

• Reimbursing Mecklenburg for its start-up costs. The county put in $8.4 million, but will get back more than $4.5 million in MeckLINK’s reserves. Cardinal said they’re unwilling to repay any of the money.

Robert Kocourek, a Cardinal senior strategy adviser and former chief operating officer, told the commissioners that Cardinal was not involved in the start-up and didn’t feel obligated to reimburse the county. He said the state would be the best source for that.

Commissioners have made it clear that the transfer is not their choice, but the state’s.

“These are circumstances not within our control,” Fuller said. “Our job is not to bemoan, but do the best we can.”

Fuller said he and commissioner Karen Bentley, also a committee member, talked by phone on Monday with N.C. Health and Human Services Aldona Wos, who Fuller said offered her support. “The secretary is very interested in helping us through the transition,” he said.

After Monday’s meeting, Fuller said many details remained to be worked out. But he thought the two sides could agree to a suitable merger.

“I do think these negotiations are going to be key,” he said. “We can’t continue to cry over spilled milk. We’ve got to get it cleaned up. That’s what we intend to do.”

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