As of late August, the future of services offered by Northcentral Health Care (NCHC) and a 44-year old tri-county organizational agreement between Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade counties looked to have an uncertain future.
However, due to a recent vote by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors to continue participation in the organization and work on an updated agreement, the horizon now appears to be a bit clearer.
At least for now.
Smoke had been pluming on the horizon for several months as Marathon County considered withdrawing from the organization. In turn, the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors received continuous updates on the rather ominous situation from Administrative Coordinator Randy Scholz.
If the withdrawal were to take place, Lincoln and Langlade counties could be left in a precarious position in terms of finding services currently provided by NCHC, including mental health, AODA, children’s services from ages birth to three years of age as well as adult protective services
Matters came to a head during the August 16 meeting of the Lincoln County Board, when the board considered and adopted a letter to be sent to Marathon County, regarding their possible withdrawal and dissolution of the agreement which had been in place since 1972.
The letter as presented on August 16th expressed both encouragement for Marathon County to uphold the agreement, as well as a warning of sorts.
Contained in the letter, reference partnership with Langlade and Marathon counties to operate a multi-county department of community programs known as North Central Health Care;
“Since 1972, the governing bodies of Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade counties have partnered together to operate a multi-county department of community programs, known as the Northcentral Community Services Program or North Central Health Care (NCHC). We understand that the Marathon County Board of Supervisors will be asked to consider approving a resolution to withdraw from this partnership in the near future.
“We believe our partnership can come together to modernize our current agreement to include stronger controls on service, quality and costs for services provided without initiating the withdrawal process.
“The purpose of this letter is to advise you that Lincoln and Langlade counties remain committed to the partnership with Marathon County. In the event that Marathon County withdraws from this partnership, the joint agreement provides that North Central Health Care can continue with sponsorship by Lincoln and Langlade counties. Before the Marathon County Board considers a resolution to withdraw, we respectfully request that we first have the opportunity to discuss the matter as partners. Whether to withdraw from this partnership is a monumental decision which will have long-lasting implications for our communities.
“Just as the creation of this partnership required all three counties to work together toward a common goal; we believe that it is in our best interests to work together at this time and provide us with the opportunity to improve the system we created over 40 years ago.”
During discussion at the August 16th meeting, 2nd District Supervisor and board vice-chairman Bob Weaver spoke in favor of the letter.
“As Marathon County has continued the process of considering withdrawing from NCHC, they have excluded Lincoln and Langlade counties. We believe we are at a point in the Marathon County decision making where the Marathon County Board must hear from the Lincoln County Board.
“Official and public statement from the Lincoln and Langlade county boards must make it clear we have had a great relationship for over 40 years. If they (Marathon) pull out, Lincoln County will not wait around and follow their lead. We are under the understanding, Marathon County feels if they pull the rug out from everyone, Lincoln and Langlade will contract with them for services. There are quite a few problems with that.”
District 12 Supervisor Paul Gilk spoke in caution of the letter during the August meeting and particular wording of an associated resolution accompanying the letter.
“I feel language regarding ‘notice about preparations being made’ is not necessary and could be seen as being provocative,” he explained. “I don’t think we should tell them we will not use their services. We may end up having to use them. I’m not happy about it but it’s a possibility.”
The language in the resolution Gilk is referring to read;
“WHEREAS, given the actions undertaken by the Marathon County Board, Lincoln County is compelled to and is currently reviewing its options. At this time, the Administrative and Legislative Committee recommends providing notice to its partners (Marathon and Langlade County Boards) regarding the preparations being made by Lincoln County to transition the delivery of its community programs and WHEREAS, among the options being considered by the Committee include joining an existing multi-county departments of community programs, and/or continuing Northcentral Health Care with Langlade County, and at this time, it is appropriate to notify our partners that Lincoln County is considering contractual arrangements with other counties and service providers to ensure smooth transition of these services to residents of Lincoln County”
“I am under the impression Marathon County is trying to dissolve NCHC as an entity and then have Lincoln and Langlade contract with them,” argued County Corporation Counsel Nancy Bergstrom.
“The difference between NCHC being owned by three counties and Marathon County delivering all services is, Marathon County alone sets the price and we just go along with it. That paragraph is written as is, to send the message for them not to assume we will just go along with this.”
11th District Supervisor Hans Breitenmoser spoke in favor of the need for a strong message to be sent across the southern county border.
“If Corporation Counsel is correct and Marathon County thinks they have us over a barrel, maybe our language needs to be even stronger,” he added. “I’m confident some Marathon County supervisors have the idea they have us over a barrel and we will come to them for services, so maybe we should make it clear they should not assume we will use their services.”
“I have read the letter over several times and I think the language states exactly what we have been feeling and discussing as a board,” added 20th District Supervisor Carl Vander Sanden.
“I don’t like the idea of talking tough either,” said board chairman Bob Lee. “But I think we are sending an honest message here. I don’t think we are insulting anyone here, but we are taking a position with this letter.”
Scholz indicated he planned to take the board’s message to a public hearing held by the Marathon County Health and Human Services committee on August 29th.
“My message will be polite, but I think it’s important they know where we stand on this.”
The Marathon County committee meeting agenda called for a; “Recommendation adopted by this committee to be forwarded to the County Board for further action: Marathon County shall terminate the existing tri-county agreement with the intention that Marathon County seek to contract for behavioral health and AODA services with service providers through its standard procurement process. For the first three years following the effective date of the termination (calendar years 2018, 2019, 2020), North Central Health Care would be the provider of these services unless equal levels of services can contracted for a lower cost. In the event equal levels of care and equal levels of service quality can be obtained at a lower cost from a provider other than North Central Health Care, Marathon County is free to contract with said providers.”
“We need to make sure we are providing for our tax payers and continue with services required and mandated of us,” Scholz stated following board approval of the letter on August 16th.
During the August 29th hearing, Scholz indicated relaying a message of Lincoln County being open and willing to negotiate a continuing agreement with Marathon and Langlade counties.
“Due to the format of a public hearing, the committee members did not respond to those who chose to speak,” Scholz explained.
“But I felt they were receptive to what I had to say.”
In the wake of the unanimous September 20th decision by Marathon County in favor of continuing participation with NCHC, Scholz is optimistic.
“This is a better situation than we were in a few months ago,” he stated during last Wednesday’s county board meeting.
During a telephone interview with the Merrill Foto News on Friday, Scholz remains optimistic.
“What the future holds isn’t exactly certain yet, but we are on the right track. The Marathon County Board has agreed to remain a part of Northcentral Health Care and asked for an updated agreement to be in place by December. Lincoln County wants to continue the tri-county relationship. We remain ready and willing to meet and discuss any issues to reach an agreement.”
The three counties are now set to engage in weekly meetings to finalize an agreement.
“If all three counties are willing to invest the time and effort, I’m certain we can reach an agreement by the December deadline.”
Included in the approved resolution by the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, is an indication of possible re-consideration of withdrawal from NCHC, if an agreement is not reached by the December deadline.
“The Marathon County Administrator and Corporation Counsel are directed to consult with the Health & Human Services Committee, other county staff, NCHC and representatives from Lincoln and Langlade Counties for purposes of creating a tentative agreement for consideration by this Board no later than its December, 2016 meeting. This tentative agreement shall be presented to the Health and Human Services Committee for consideration and recommendation to the Marathon County Board no later than the Board’s December, 2016 meeting. If the parties are unable to achieve a tentative agreement by the December, 2016 meeting or the tentative agreement is not approved by all three member counties by this Board’s December, 2016 meeting, this Board will consider whether to continue under the current agreement in place or withdraw from the current tri‐county agreement at the same December, 2016 meeting.”