'It’s too late’: Meck County agrees to cut ties with Cardinal Innovations

CHARLOTTE — Mecklenburg County has started the process of cutting ties with Cardinal Innovations -- a decision that will impact thousands of people.

Cardinal helps the county coordinate mental and behavioral health care for people on Medicaid.

Channel 9 has reported on issues with Cardinal Innovations for years. The possible split stems from complaints about long wait times for services, including behavioral health, and placing at-risk foster children.

North Carolina pays Cardinal Innovations to help Medicaid patients receive services for things like substance abuse and mental health counseling. But county leaders said they’ve been forced to partner with other providers because Cardinal could not provide help in a reasonable time frame -- and that left mental health patients turning to the emergency room and children in foster care waiting for critical help.

On Friday, Stanly County officials said the board will likely take action in November to also cut ties with Cardinal Innovations.

Channel 9 reported last month that both Union and Cabarrus counties voted to stop doing business with Cardinal over similar concerns.

During Wednesday night’s county commission meeting, Cardinal’s CEO, Trey Sutten, said he’ll submit an improvement plan next week.

“I can share with you tonight that we will deliver a concrete plan to the county on Monday that’s responsive and addresses the concerns,” Sutten said.

But commissioners unanimously agreed that it was too late.

“While I appreciate Trey saying he’s going to come forward with a plan, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that before -- and we’re still here and we’ve got 16 kids still sitting in emergency placements,” County Manager Dena Diorio said.

What happens next?

The county must write a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services as well as state lawmakers.

They then have to wait nine months and provide a plan to work with another behavioral health services provider.

In the meantime, the thousands who need those services will get them through interim providers.

Family shares experience with Cardinal Innovations

9-year-old Eric Hardman is nonverbal and has autism.

His parents Ben and Wendy Hardman told Channel 9′s Allison Latos they are a single-income household, but don’t qualify for Medicaid.

They rely on private insurance and are paying out of pocket for treatment like his in-home therapist.

The Hardmans said they turned to Cardinal Innovations for a waiver.

“The waiver would allow us to apply for Medicaid based on Eric’s needs not based on the family’s ability, financial means, to take care of him,” Ben Hardman said.

The family said Cardinal initially told them Eric didn’t qualify for a waiver because of their income but that’s not true. They said it took fighting through phone calls and meetings to get him on the waitlist.

“It’s not just kids, it’s teenagers, it’s adults, they all need help. They can’t keep playing God,” Wenday Hardman said.

Channel 9 asked Virginia Knowlton Marcus, the CEO of Disability Rights NC, if they are seeing problems with families trying to get on the waiver waitlist.

“Absolutely, there are thousands of people on the waitlist, waiting a decade,” she said.

Disability Rights NC is one of several advocacy organizations, calling on the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services for tougher oversight to hold Cardinal accountable.

North Carolina pays Cardinal to coordinate mental and behavioral care for Medicaid patients.

Doug Sea with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy sued Cardinal six years ago over a lack of care.

“The less service they provide, the more money they can put in their own bank account,” he said.

He told us if changes don’t come soon, he could help families fight in court again.