OWATONNA – They are safe for another year, but South Country Health Alliance isn’t out of the woods just yet after the Minnesota Department of Human Services cancelled its requests for proposals that almost resulted in the local organizations shutting their doors for good.

At the beginning of the year, Minnesota DHS completed the evaluation process of requests for proposals – or RFPs – to provide health care services to eligible recipients of Families and Children and MinnesotaCare in 80 counties. Among those proposals was one from SCHA, which serves 12 counties in southern Minnesota including Goodhue, Dodge and Steele counties, providing seven different programs to some 39,000 enrollees.

When the DHS rejected SCHA’s proposal, it would have inhibited the ability to provide healthcare services to eligible recipients of Minnesota Senior Options, Minnesota Senior Care Plus, Families and Children, and MinnesotaCare in 2020. Leota Lind, CEO for SCHA, said that the decision would have resulted in the organizations closing up shop indefinitely.

“There will be an economic impact from this, it’s not only South Country that is being affected this time,” Lind had told the People’s Press in August after Steele County official filed for mediation with the state in regard to the decision. “It is in direct conflict with the desire and needs and rights of these counties.”

Since then, Lind said that the DHS has cancelled the RFPs, which automatically renewed all of their current contracts for another year. Though this is good news in the short-term, Lind said that it isn’t finding a long-lasting solution to an ongoing problem. In 2015, several counties appealed to DHS after the results of the statewide bidding process did not offer contracts to providers, including SCHA, as choices for residents receiving MinnesotaCare or prepaid Medical Assistance plans. A three-member panel with the State expedited mediation to review the bidding process and counties’ data, leading to a modification in the contracts with the two providers.

“Cancelling the RFP changes things in that we are still in business and still contracting for 2020, but it really doesn’t solve the underlying issue,” Lind explained. “In 2015 there were numerous counties in the state that filed for mediation and now in 2019 this process was done and there were more than 30 counties that filed again.”

“Two separate times you had 30-40 counties filing for mediation,” she continued. “To me, that’s an indication that there are some issues with the process.”

Lind stated that the biggest issue with the current selection process is that counties throughout the state haven’t been able to participate in it. According to Lind, there is a state statute that identifies that counties have a right to elect and administer health care programs in their counties, but that DHS chooses to ignore that statute and uses an administration process to essentially strip counties of that right.

“The counties that South Country represents aren’t being heard,” Lind said. “And I know that other counties have not felt that the input they’ve provided and what they’ve requested has been listened to or heard by the State. Overall, counties have felt their input has been disregarded.”

In the cancelling of the RFPs, the DHS identified the lawsuit filed by SCHA as the reason for the cancellation, saying it would take attention away from ongoing contracts. When the RFPs were cancelled the lawsuit went away.

“The state will do another procurement, but we don’t know at this time when it will be done,” Lind said about what SCHA will do moving forward. “Essentially at this point we are stilling wanting to work with Human Services, the governor’s office, and legislators as we try to address the concerns and issues that ourselves and others have with the procurement process.”

For now, Lind said that their main priority will continue to be the members severed by SCHA.

“We are here and going to continue to provide the best possible service we can to our members,” she stated. “But we also are committed to advocating for rural communities and health care in rural communities. We know that it’s not one-size-fits-all and we will continue to advocate that those decisions are best made at the local level.”

South Country Health Alliance is a county-based health care purchasing organizations based in Owatonna. The organizations currently contracts with the following counties: Brown, Dodge, Freeborn, Goodhue, Kanabec, Morrison, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wabasha, Wadena, and Waseca.

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