A bridge, not a cliff, for NCHC


Marathon County Board member Sarah Guild leads an exercise during Monday’s meeting with Morningside Research and Consultant Services.

With the clock ticking, North Central Health Care’s 800-plus employees, county board members and Marathon County residents have little idea what’s happening next for both the organization and the services it provides. But a three-year plan where NCHC remains the sole provider could provide some needed stability.

The county board in February voted to explore dissolving its long-standing contract for services from NCHC and consider forming a county health and human services department. It’s an extraordinary measure that followed a January emergency meeting where county leaders highlighted a number of problems they saw with how the agency was handling mental health and addiction services. County officials have a vote scheduled for September, and at the very latest need to make a decision by the end of the year, says County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs. Otherwise it will delay the implementation another year and bring further uncertainty at NCHC and for county residents.

With a recommendation from an outside consultant in hand, county leaders now are working on a proposal for the future of mental health care delivery, and possibly the future of NCHC itself.

Related: Consultant: Keep NCHC (sort of)

That recommendation calls for terminating the current broad contract with NCHC and then contracting for the individual services the health care center provides. This option came in response to what the report describes as a need for better transparency, accountability, influence and communication between the county and NCHC.

The new plan, emerging Tuesday out of a transition task force, would see the current contract with NCHC end on Jan. 1, 2018. The county would enter a new agreement with Lincoln and Langlade counties, which partnered with Marathon County to form NCHC. For the first three years, the county would exclusively contract for those services through NCHC. After that, the county could contract for individual services with other providers through a public proposal process.

No one can say for certain what the effect on NCHC would be and whether the organization would be able to continue if it were to lose a number of contracts.

NCHC Interim CEO Michael Loy initially said in an email to an NCHC board member that contracting for individual services would effectively end NCHC. But he felt the new plan was a good idea in order to “create a bridge, versus a cliff.” Loy says he welcomed the implementation of performance metrics to ensure county residents are getting the best service.

Complicating the matter are costs, some of which remain a mystery. Though potential costs were ranked in the report, no real dollars were provided and the consultants didn’t elaborate on how they came up with their numbers. Once a plan is finalized, another consultant hired to explore costs of the change could finish their analysis, Karger says.

The proposal has support, Karger says, including from County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs, Public Safety Chair Craig McEwen and NCHC Board Chair Jeff Zriny. Sheriff Scott Parks is also in support, email records show.