The most amazing thing about the newly announced giant deal to completely reshape mental health care in North Carolina is not that Guilford County, Cone Health and Sandhills Center are doing something radically new, or that they’re building two new facilities devoted to state-of-the-art mental health care, or that they are perhaps turning Guilford County into a mental health care model for communities across the country to emulate.

No, the most amazing thing is that, somehow, someway, those three giant entities crafted the mega-deal over a two-year period without out anyone letting slip so much as a single hint about what they were doing.

How in the world did they manage that?

Throughout the process, there were documents and emails – many public records – flying between the participants.  In this case, however, even though the records were public, no one knew to ask to see them because the participants never so much as hinted anything was in the works.

During the process, Sandhills Center, the administrative entity that oversees mental health care for Guilford County and eight other counties, quietly set aside millions of dollars to construct a new building in Greensboro.  Sandhills had the easiest job of not letting anyone find out for the simple reason that Sandhills’ home office is in West End, NC, more than an hour’s drive from Greensboro.  As far as the Rhino Timesis aware, no reporter from Guilford County has ever attended a Sandhills board meeting.

Cone Health also has an advantage when it comes to keeping secrets: Cone exists in an industry where keeping patients’ secrets isn’t just a good idea – it’s the law.  So they have a little experience in that regard.

In November, Cone Health CEO Terry Akin did drop a hint at a meeting of area economic development officials.  He said one of the biggest challenges in health care is providing mental health services and he added, “But we are collaborating with the county and have really appreciated their engagement and I am hopeful that together we can arrive at some things we can talk about in the not too distant future on that front.”

But as for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners?  The board is notorious for not being able to keep a secret.  This is the board which one former county manager exclaimed about helplessly, “What’s the point of even having closed sessions?”

That’s a harder one.

The commissioners and county staff met, went on trips to Raleigh and Asheville without anyone finding out.  Several months ago, the Rhino Timeswas considering writing a piece about how all of the county’s talks regarding mental health care had completely ground to a halt – because, at least publically, there had been absolutely zero going on for a year and a half. They had, of course, simply taken those talks underground in a way that was perfectly legal but highly unusual.

Commissioner Jeff Phillips said recently that the trick was meeting in small groups, having a lot of one on one conversations and taking it slow since there could be no discussions with the majority of the board present.   Say what you will about the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, but never say they can’t keep a secret.