Western Highlands announces plans to merge with Smoky Mountain

As the July 31 deadline looms for ending Western Highlands Network’s state Medicaid contract, its board hopes to keep mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services close to home.

Rather than merge with an out-of-state or other non-local organization, WHN board members voted unanimously April 25 on its intent to become part of Waynesville-based Smoky Mountain Center.

Western Highlands Board Chair Charles Vines called the future partnership with Smoky Mountain “a good fit.” He said, “I think it’d be a hard sell to any one of our county managers to convince any of our county boards that they’re going to be managed by an MCO in Durham County, for example,” adding, “We chose Smoky for the purpose of making sure we have a presence in Western North Carolina.”

Vines referred to the many steps that must occur before a merger can take effect. The board’s resolution of intent has to be approved by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services; if approved, the two managed care entities can then draw up a management agreement. With the latter in hand, WHN’s participating counties then must agree to the merger. Those counties are Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey. If approved, the deal would expand Smoky Mountains’ coverage area from 15 counties to 23. (See map below for reference. Counties that Western Highlands currently serves are marked in green. Counties Smoky Mountain serves are marked in blue.)

Buncombe County Social Services Manager and board member Mandy Stone said that Western Highlands will become a stronger entity as a result of the merger with Smoky Mountain, if all goes well. “It offers the ability to stabilize both the strong provider network and to allow consumers to have standardized services across all of Western North Carolina,” she said. “We really do think part of it’s about that mountain culture. County managers are very responsive to their individual communities and we really want that to drive how we move forward.”

The decision to move forward with this merger came after the board went into closed session for a more than an hour, and it aligns with plans presented at the board’s April 12 meeting. At that time, the board said it had two options for the future of WHN: pilot an integrated health-care program or merge with another local management entity.

For Smoky Mountain, this potential merger is familiar territory. Two years ago, when New River Behavioral Healthcare board members realized that internal financial difficulties would mean closing the doors, Smoky Mountain absorbed its service area.

Beyond dotting the i’s and crossing t’s in official documents, the focus remains on the people who access services provided through the managed care organization, said Henderson County manger and Western Highlands board member Steve Wyatt. “We’re not looking at cutting any services at this time. Our No. 1 goal is to provide and enhance services. We feel like partnering with Smoky gives us the best opportunity to enhance our services not only quality, but hopefully the quantity,” Wyatt said.

Immediately following the merger announcement, the board met with Western Highlands staff members. Before that meeting, Stone explained to Xpress that board members were discussing the timeline leading up to the July 31 deadlines and answering any other questions staff members may have about future opportunities.

“Our focus is about stabilizing the workforce across the two organizations because that’s where the knowledge and expertise is and they’ll really drive the success of how we move forward,” said Stone.

During public comment, Former CEO of Families Together, Dan Zorn, said that the merger with Smoky Mountain has the opportunity to keep private hands from taking over Western Highlands, or as he put it: the merger will “protect the community option.” However while board members were deliberating about the merger in closed session, he told Xpress that mergers are not easy. “It is going to be a very difficult process. There will not be birds chirping. Any merger and acquisition or partnership is hard,” he said, adding, “Patience is going to be critical.”

In proceeding with this merger, Vines said, the board will keep its priority on making the transition as seamless as possible for providers and consumers alike. “Today was the beginning of our prospect. If everything is done like it’s supposed to be done, and I anticipate that it will, there should not be any lapse in services,” he said.

Caitlin Byrd can be reached at cbyrd@mountainx.com, or 251-1333, ext. 140.

  Western Highlands Resolution of Intent


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