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Franklin County picks Duke LifePoint to operate its medical center

Franklin County’s only hospital has been closed for a year, but it could reopen by next summer, officials said.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners decided unanimously Monday to accept a proposal from Duke LifePoint to operate a freestanding emergency department and operate beds for mental health patients in the former Franklin Medical Center.

“Our goal is for both the behavioral health service and the emergency department be operational within the first year,” said Bert Beard, CEO of the Maria Parham Medical Center in Henderson.

Duke LifePoint estimates that about 10,000 patients will be treated in Franklin County’s emergency department during its first year of operation, said Beard, who will oversee the facility.

During the Duke LifePoint presentation Monday night, officials from the company pledged a $3 million renovation of the hospital’s emergency department and establishment of 13 geriatric mental health beds before the hospital reopens, Beard said.

The exact opening date depends on how fast construction is finished and the 55 full-time staff members are hired, but it should open within six months to a year.

Eventually, the Duke LifePoint proposal outlines spending between $22.8 million and $24 million on facility renovations and growing the number of mental health beds to between 48 and 60, for patients of all ages.

In addition to renovations and upgrades to the hospital, the Duke proposal calls for establishing a primary care practice in Louisburg and a surgery center with two operating rooms in Youngsville.

Negotiations on final lease terms between Duke LifePoint and the county, north of Wake, are expected within 90 days.

Franklin Medical was left empty last October after Winston-Salem-based Novant Health, which owned the 83-bed hospital, left and failed to find a buyer to take over. The closure left 113 full-time and 16 part-time employees out of work.

The county, which owns the building, was allowed to seek a new operator after a provision in this year’s state budget gave licensed hospitals the ability to operate freestanding emergency departments in adjoining counties. Previously, North Carolina law allowed freestanding emergency departments only in counties that already had a licensed hospital.

Also as part of the state budget, rural counties like Franklin can apply for money from the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Fund, an $18 million pot to help treat patients with mental-health needs. Last year, North Carolina sold the site of the former Dix psychiatric hospital to the city of Raleigh for $52 million.

Duke LifePoint Healthcare as well as WakeMed Health and Hospitals and the Franklin County Healthcare Hospital and Practice Accountable Development Group submitted proposals on how to provide care at Franklin Medical in September.

A meeting for public comment on the proposals was held Oct. 6.

All three proposals called for opening facilities that would provide emergency care and beds for mental health patients, but Duke LifePoint won out because it offered a full emergency room and a solid implementation plan, said Sidney Dunston, the county board’s chairman.

The WakeMed proposal outlined the establishment of a triage center with general laboratory and radiology services, but not a full emergency department, he said.

Dunston said the board’s vote underscores that a full emergency department was the most important piece of the proposal.

“This is a matter of life and death,” Dunston said. “That means life.”

Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi

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