WHN approves merger with Smoky Mountain

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 06:05 AM

In an effort to maintain client services without delays from a contract termination, the Western Highlands Network board on Thursday approved a proposed merger with Smoky Mountain Center, based in Sylva.

According to Western Highlands' officials the proposed merger will develop "a partnership between the two organizations for overseeing the management of behavioral health and intellectual/developmental disability services."

"We think it is a very positive and logical step," said Carl Classen, Rutherford County manager and Western Highlands board treasurer. "It just made sense, if you are going to make this as seamless as possible, to work with Smoky Mountain Center."

If the merger is successful, the combined organization will serve 23 counties in western North Carolina. The Western Highlands Network currently services eight — Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancy counties.

"One of the primary reasons that exploring a relationship with Smoky Mountain Center is advantageous is that they view Western Highlands Network employees as a valuable resource critical to the success of Smoky Mountain Center's assumption of the 1915 (b)/(c) Medicaid waivers contract as well as other functions," said Charles Schoenheit, interim CEO of the Western Highlands Network, in a press release.

Officials with Smoky Mountains Center said they were "pleased" with the decision of the Western Highlands board.

"Our primary goal is to establish a collaborative process with the board and staff of Western Highlands Network that will promote open communication and active engagement with customers, consumers and community stakeholders," said Brian Ingraham, CEO of Smoky Mountain Center, in a statement.

It is the state's termination of a contract between the Division of Medical Assistance (DMA) and the Western Highlands Network for the administration of Medicaid waivers that started the process of Western Highlands seeking a partnership with another Local Management Entity (LME).

According to Schoenheit, Western Highlands received interest from three LMEs. He said Alliance (Durham), Center Point (Winston-Salem) and Smoky Mountain Center were those that expressed interest in a partnership.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which oversees DMA, said that they seek a seamless transition regarding the handling of the Medicaid waiver program.

"It is not the intent to have any adverse affect on any clients of Western Highlands," said Julie Henry, acting director of public affairs with DHHS. "We have been talking about a plan on how to make the transition and how we can expedite credentialing for providers."

Officials said the next step is for both entities to begin the plan for a "smooth transition."

"Our whole focus right now is that the consumers, families and providers have been turned upside down by what the state did," Classen said. "We sat down and decided to make this work for our local people."

The state will also have to approve the proposed merger agreement.