Administrator: Rock County, HealthNet contract not possible for 2018

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Ashley McCallum
Saturday, November 4, 2017

JANESVILLERock County is open to the idea of contracting with HealthNet of Rock County for select medical services, but such an agreement will not be possible before the county board adopts the 2018 budget.

County Administrator Josh Smith said a contract was still being considered between the county and the nonprofit, which learned last month that it was one of four local agencies that will not receive county funding next year.

However, no deals are expected before the county board votes on the new budget Nov. 14.

Besides HealthNet, United Way Blackhawk Region, Rock Valley Community Programs and NeighborWorks will not get county money in 2018.

The budget cuts were based on a formal opinion from Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel that suggests counties cannot give money to nonprofits unless specifically authorized by state law.

HealthNet has received about $57,000 from the county each year since 2004, said Ian Hedges, CEO of HealthNet.

Without the county's contribution, HealthNet will “significantly” cut back services next year, Hedges said. He estimates the nonprofit will have to trim medical and dental services for about 368 people.

After seeing a 75 percent increase in patients last year, Hedges said the nonprofit had hoped to expand mental health and substance abuse services. Those plans will be on hold until alternative funding or a contract can be provided.

A contract between the county and the nonprofit could help make up for losses in funding, Hedges said.

Before that can happen, Smith said, the county must determine which HealthNet services overlap with the county's authorized services and mandates.

“We want to be clear that if we want to have a contract with an organization, we are not just having a contract that gets us around the contribution barrier,” Smith said. “(We are looking for) a legitimate contract with legitimate services that we are authorized to contract for and is part of our mission and mandate.”

One potential area of shared interest is the county's and HealthNet's efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, Hedges said.

Hedges said he is “absolutely” interested in contracting with the county. He noted his past experience with the county has been favorable.

After learning of the budget cuts, Hedges reached out to state lawmakers to ask about a change in state law. He declined to name the legislators with whom he spoke.

He said he was told later that the Wisconsin Counties Association likely would not support such legislation, so the lawmakers did not plan to pursue it.

Andrew Phillips, general counsel for the Wisconsin Counties Association, said he was not aware of that perception and would be surprised to see the association take that position.

Hedges said he reached out to the association in mid-October to discuss the matter but has not yet received a response.

The association has written a memo that offers a legal analysis of the attorney general's opinion and options for counties moving forward, Phillips said. The memo had not been distributed as of The Gazette's press time, but it should be soon, he said.

The memo includes the option for counties to set up contracts with nonprofits, Phillips said.

Smith has concerns about how the Legislature will view a request to let Rock County continue to give money to nonprofits.

The county usually reaches out to lawmakers to ask for more money, Smith said. He noted that Rock County is $1.5 million over budget for placing children in the foster care system—a result of the opioid epidemic.

Asking for the ability to spend more money for nonmandated services might send the wrong message about the state of the county's finances, Smith said.

Despite those concerns, Smith said he would never discourage anyone from pursuing legislative change.

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