Guilford County May Join Sandhills Center
Sandhills Center is being wooed by a towering neighbor — Guilford County.
If the merger takes place, the center leadership expects more benefit than problem. After all, the mental health agency has undergone two successful mergers since a statewide administrative reform of the program was initiated several years ago.
“It’s really about the economy and using the ability to do more with less,” said Victoria Whitt, executive director of Sandhills Center for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.
Sandhills Center has headquarters at Seven Lakes.
“We told them we would negotiate,” said Craig Kennedy, the Moore County commissioner who represents the county on the Sandhills Center Area Board.
With a population of almost half a million, Guilford is the third-largest county in North Carolina. Nevertheless, that population is not large enough to sustain a local management entity (LME), the term the state uses to describe the management of local centers.
“Guilford doesn’t have the Medicaid population to go it alone,” Whitt said.
Medicaid is not the only source of funding for mental health centers, but it is of major significance to every center in the state. Funds come from the state and local governments as well, along with fees paid by patients.
Both Whitt and Kennedy make it clear that negotiations are still under way and a good bit of bureaucratic red tape must be cleared before a decision is made. Guilford County is definitely interested, and the state has indicated support for the proposed merger.
However, approval is also required by the board of commissioners in each of the existing Sandhills Center member counties. Whitt hopes a decision can be made no later than February.
“It is still preliminary, but talks are going really well,” Whitt said.
Whitt said she is optimistic and that the addition of Guilford County would shore up Sandhills’ prospects for remaining an LME, with no danger of being forced into a different and possibly less beneficial merger in the future.
That’s because of Guilford County’s size, its population listed as 488,406 in the 2010 U.S. Census. Whitt said the minimum recommended size for LMEs will soon be 500,000. If Guilford does join Sandhills Center, then the center is assured of that required minimum population for years to come.
“It’s just a matter of numbers,” Whitt said.
Whitt expects no adjustment problem with the largely rural counties in the present Sandhills Center and the more populous and urban Guilford County, centered by Greensboro, a university city with a broad cultural and industrial base.
“Their culture is a lot like ours,” Whitt said. “We have collaborated with them in the past. Sometimes change is good.”
Kennedy also sees advantages in a linkage with Guilford County, which commits at least $10 million annually to the local mental health budget to cover the expenses of their own residents.
“They don’t skimp,” Kennedy said. “They’re serious about taking care of those people.”
He is also optimistic that Guilford County will succeed in joining Sandhills.
“They realize that Sandhills Center is the best option,” Kennedy said.
The original Sandhills Center served Anson, Hoke, Montgomery, Moore and Richmond counties. The state legislature enacted reform of the system almost 10 years ago, a change that required widespread administration adjustments. To bring existing centers, or LMEs, into conformance with the state plan, it was necessary for the smaller centers to be absorbed into larger, more efficiently operated systems.
Randolph County was the first to join Sandhills. Later Hoke and Lee came aboard.
Despite its size, Guilford is not quite large enough to maintain an LME of its own under the state system. County leaders negotiated with Durham and Wake counties to determine if a merger would work but were unable to reach agreement, according to information gathered by Guilford officials.
Mecklenburg and Wake counties are the only counties large enough to provide the satisfactorily cost-effective administration of mental health operations as one-county centers, under the state reform system. Other large counties, such as Durham, Wake, Buncombe, New Hanover, and Cumberland, work with neighboring counties to form centers large enough to serve the desired population base.
Under the reform program, mental health agencies provide few services from individual centers and clinics. Instead, these services are contracted out to professional groups.
Mental health centers fall within the purview of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
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