Nine months after Franklin County’s only medical center closed, county leaders are hoping to partner with a Triangle hospital to open an emergency department and a mental-health facility.
The Franklin Medical Center closed in October, after Winston-Salem company Novant Health left and failed to find a buyer for the 83-bed hospital.
“It created a medical desert for emergency care services in Franklin County,” said state Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican whose district includes Franklin County and part of Wake County.
Barefoot helped add two measures to the state budget that would allow for freestanding emergency departments to open in Franklin and Yadkin counties, where hospitals recently closed. Yadkin Valley Community Hospital closed in May 2015.
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Previously, North Carolina law allowed freestanding emergency departments only in counties that already had a licensed hospital. Under the change, such departments can operate as long as a hospital is in an adjoining county.
Also, hospitals in rural counties such as Franklin can now apply for money from the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Fund, an $18 million pot to be used to help treat patients with mental-health needs.
Last year, North Carolina sold the site of the former psychiatric hospital to the city of Raleigh for $52 million.
Franklin County will now solicit proposals from hospitals in Wake and Durham counties to operate an emergency department and offer mental-health care and other services in the existing hospital space, Barefoot said.
It’s unclear how much the facility would cost to open and operate, he said.
Louisburg Town Councilman Boyd Sturges said county leaders could choose a health care provider in as soon as two to three months.
“We want it open pretty quickly because our citizens need it,” Sturges said.
An emergency department could open without mental-health services, but the county is seeking bids that have both components.
“We think that the existing hospital, in addition to providing a top flight emergency department, will be a perfect place to house inpatient mental health beds and the services that go along with that,” said Franklin County Commissioner Sidney Dunston.
When Franklin Medical Center closed, WakeMed officials talked to Franklin County leaders about offering health care services in the county, said Donald Gintzig, CEO and president of WakeMed.
With the changes brought about by lawmakers, WakeMed has renewed interest.
“Thanks to actions by the General Assembly, the development of emergency services and behavioral health services are both possibilities that we want to pursue,” Gintzig said in a statement Thursday.
At the time of its closure, Franklin Medical Center saw an average of eight in-patients a day, and six of them were seeking help in the 13-bed geriatric behavioral health unit, a spokeswoman for Novant Health said in October.
About 90 percent of residents in Franklin County, which has a population of about 64,000, went outside the county for health care, Novant said.
The company agreed to continue maintaining the facility through November 2016, or until another group steps in, said Franklin County Manager Angela Harris.
When the hospital closed, 113 full-time and 16 part-time employees were laid off.
Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi