Marathon County board member Jeff Zriny

Marathon, Lincoln and Langlade counties have until December to form a plan with North Central Health Care that will keep the organization around while establishing solid expectations moving forward.

That’s the task the Marathon County board put on its administration after voting unanimously Tuesday to continue working with NCHC to deliver mental health, addiction and elderly services as required by state law. The motion replaced a previous one that would have terminated its contract with the agency and caused the county to look elsewhere for service providers.

The decision caps off nine months of turmoil for the 806-employee health provider, after the county in January held special meetings to discuss allegations of perceived service failures by NCHC. The county explored a range of options, from forming its own health and human services department to allowing any qualified organization to bid on providing services.

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Tuesday’s decision was seen as a compromise, created largely by Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger, who says the new plan is something all parties said they could live with. That includes Lincoln and Langlade counties, which previously had been left out of discussions and somewhat at the mercy of Marathon County’s actions.

The new directive gives the counties just three months to hammer out an agreement with NCHC that lays out clearer priorities, better communication and a way for NCHC programs to respond more nimbly to the county’s needs. The final agreement must be in place by Dec. 31, when the current contract ends. A delay would add further uncertainty about the organization’s future and could potentially jeopardize services.

County Board Member Jeff Zriny said following Tuesday’s vote he’s confident an agreement can be reached. “I believe in Brad, he’s a hard worker,” Zriny said. “This motion is achievable but it will take a lot of discipline for those involved in this process.”

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NCHC’s Interim CEO Michael Loy says the decision will help ease concerns among employees and patients about the agency’s future, and help administrators speak with more certainty in their recruitment process for mental health professionals, who are in short supply throughout Wisconsin.

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