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Originally published: 2013-09-30 10:41:24
Last modified: 2013-09-30 10:42:08

Smoky Mountain Center board approves merger

The Smoky Mountain Center board of directors voted almost unanimously Thursday to merge with the Western Highlands Network, adding eight counties to SMC's service area for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services.

The lone "nay" votes came from Watauga County Commissioner Billy Kennedy and at-large member Fred Oliver of Boone, who voted by proxy. Kennedy said continued concerns about county representation on the unified board of directors led him to cast the symbolic vote.

The two agencies announced plans for their consolidation in April, after the Department of Health and Human Services terminated Western Highlands' Medicaid contract.

Starting Oct. 1, Smoky Mountain Center will manage Medicaid and state funds for 23 Western North Carolina counties, including the eight previously overseen by Western Highlands Network.

As part of the consolidation, both boards of directors have been working to establish a joint board. State law requires that the new board must be in place either 30 days after the merger is approved by the state or by April 1, 2014, whichever is sooner.

They also must comply with a 2012 law change that redefined who must sit on the board.

Under the new plan, the board must have between 11 and 21 members with expertise in specific categories, including large-scale health care administration, insurance, finance and hospital administration. It also must include at least one county commissioner, one person representing individuals with mental health disease, an attorney with health care expertise and other appointees.

Watauga County commissioners expressed concern last week about the new board rules, which will not permit direct representation from all 23 counties. The county has provided at least $180,000 each fiscal year, but won't be guaranteed a vote on the board, commissioners said.

Kennedy said he again raised these objections at the meeting Thursday in Asheville.

"When they came to voting on the merger, I spoke up, and called them out and told them that by statute, within 30 days of the secretary of Health and Human Services approving (the consolidation), the new board has to be in effect," Kennedy said Friday. "Voting for this is basically voting yourself off this board and giving up board control."

Although he was alone in his vote, Kennedy said several board members approached him after the meeting expressing similar dissatisfaction.

He said the board is considering holding a meeting in the next few weeks for representatives from all affected counties to further discuss the matter.