Mental-health agency closes budget gap, seeks new leaders

After a tumultuous year for Western Highlands, the regional mental-health agency is starting 2013 on stronger financial footing.

Western Highlands Board Chairman Charles E. Vines (who is also Mitchell County manager) says the agency was able to close a $4.2 million budget gap and end 2012 in the black. He says that was accomplished largely through the state increasing the “per member per month” rate last fall, along with cost-cutting measures undertaken by Western Highlands staff and consultants hired to help the agency get back on its feet.

“As of December, we are back in the black,” says Vines.

Western Highlands connects people who need government services for mental health, developmental and intellectual disabilities and substance abuse with providers of those services. The network covers eight Western North Carolina counties: Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey.

In January 2012, Western Highlands became the second local management entity in North Carolina to convert to a managed-care agency, in which local officials manage federal Medicaid dollars funneled through the state. But six months into the new system, the agency made headlines when a multimillion-dollar deficit was revealed, and the board fired CEO Arthur Carder Jr. (See “Under the Gun,” Aug. 7, 2012, Xpress.)

Since then, the agency has been operating under the leadership of Interim CEO Charles Schoenheit.

At a special meeting Jan. 17, Western Highlands board members interviewed a third candidate for the CEO position, Vines says, though no decision was made. Board members are specifically seeking a chief executive officer with managed-care experience.

The agency also has begun looking for a new chief financial officer to replace CFO Sharon Lentz, who is retiring at the end of June, says Vines. She faced criticism from at least one Western Highlands board member last summer for noticing budget problems but not promptly reporting them to the board.

Contributing editor Tracy Rose lives in Asheville.

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