WILLMAR — The Minnesota Department of Human Services called a halt last week to the contracting process for publicly funded health care programs, but what this means for Kandiyohi County remains unclear.

The county was scheduled to participate in mediation later this month over a DHS decision to recommend contracts with multiple health plans, starting Jan. 1, for enrollees in public health plans. Kandiyohi County's own recommendation was for PrimeWest Health as the sole choice.

The county is set to join the PrimeWest county-based purchasing organization at the beginning of 2020, an arrangement that in effect allows all 24 member counties to function as their own health plan for Medicaid, MinnesotaCare and other public health programs.

County leaders say it will give them more local control over how health care services are delivered to this population and enhance Kandiyohi County's ability to address local needs.

A number of rural counties have reacted with dismay to the DHS contract recommendations, saying it disregarded input at the local level. A group of counties representing the South Country Health Alliance in southern Minnesota took the issue to court and were granted an injunction in late August, prompting DHS in turn to cancel the contracting process.

The state's move may buy some time to address some of the issues between DHS and counties over how the process is being handled. But the impact on Kandiyohi County is still far from clear, said Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County administrator.

"This doesn't resolve anything for us," he said Tuesday. "We're trying to figure out what this means."

DHS said in a news release late last week that it would enter into negotiations to renew current contracts for next year to ensure care isn't disrupted for enrollees. It's unclear how this might affect Kandiyohi County's plan to officially join PrimeWest Health on Jan. 1, a move that county staff have spent months gearing up for, Kleindl said.

County leaders are still committed to the PrimeWest model of care, he said. "We're still going to stay at the table with PrimeWest. We've come so far in getting our joint powers together. I think we want to keep that process going."

If DHS starts the contracting process over again next year, "we want to be at the table," Kleindl added.

The county last week sent letters from the County Board of Commissioners and the Health and Human Services Department to Gov. Tim Walz, asking him to intervene in support of local decision-making.

About one in every four Kandiyohi County residents is covered by some form of publicly funded health program such as Medicaid, MinnesotaCare or Minnesota Senior Health Options. Statewide, about 400,000 Minnesotans are enrolled in public health programs.

Requests for health plan contract proposals are issued by the Department of Human Services every five years and awarded on a competitive basis.