LRGHealthcare to open 10 bed psychiatric care ward at Franklin Hospital

FRANKLIN — Franklin Regional Hospital will become the second hospital in New Hampshire to provide acute psychiatric care when it opens a 10 bed unit in October following the decision this week of the Health Services Planning and Review Board to approve the proposal by LRGHealthcare, which operates the hospital.

Ellen Wolff, chief nursing officer and senior vice-president of patient care services at LRGHealthcare, said that the decision is the culmination of efforts by the company to bring in-patient psychiatric services to the region that began in 2007, but were twice shelved for want of adequate resources. The ultimate success of the initiative, she said, stemmed from the inclusion of $5-million for the project in the $28-million appropriated to improve mental health services in the biennial budget, which was proposed by Governor Maggie Hassan and endorsed by the Legislature.

"We were asked and we were willing," Wolff said, explaining how the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) chose to place the unit at Franklin Regional Hospital.

The unit will be a "designated receiving facility" (DRF), the only type of institution that can accept patients committed against their will other than New Hampshire (state) Hospital in Concord. Elliot Hospital, which operates an eight-bed unit in Manchester is the only other DRF in the state.

Wolff said that the psychiatric unit will operate in space formerly occupied by the obstetrics unit, which will be retrofitted at a cost of $780,000. She said that no major structural renovations will be required, but the unit will be fitted and equipped with security features, accessible bathrooms and special furniture. Since patients admitted involuntarily are entitled to a hearing within 72 hours of admission, the unit will include a courtroom.

The unit will be staffed by the equivalent of 24 or 25 full-time employees, including security personnel round-the-clock. Genesis Behavioral Health, the regional mental health agency headquartered in Laconia and serving Belknap County and southern Grafton County, will provide support services as necessary.

Wolff explained that the unit is intended to ease the pressure of what she called "pysch boarders," patients requiring immediate care housed in hospital emergency rooms awaiting admission to New Hampshire Hospital, where there are just 130 beds for adults and children. She said that earlier this year more than 30 such patients were in hospital emergency departments and in June 10 of the 17 beds at Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia were occupied by patients requiring psychiatric care. At the same time, Wolff said that psychiatric units in hospitals enable patients to remain closer to their families and communities.

Since 1990, the number of beds at New Hampshire Hospital has shrunk from 316 to 130 while the number of beds for psychiatric patients in community hospitals has dwindled from 236 to 150. Six hospitals have closed their psychiatric units. The number of beds for involuntary admission has dropped even more sharply, from 101 in 1998 to 18 with the opening of the unit at Franklin Regional Hospital.

"We are excited," said Wolff, adding that "our goal is for this program to become a model for other community hospitals.

Meanwhile, the biennial state budget also included funding for an Acute Psychiatric Residential Treatment Program (APTRTP) housed in a 16-bed facility at a location to be selected by the Division of Behavioral Health of DHHS, which is expected to issue requests-for-proposals this fall. Maggie Pritchard, executive director of Genesis Behavioral Health, has indicated that her agency intends to apply to operate the program at its property on Church Street in Laconia.