A proposed 44-bed psychiatric hospital in Huntersville could open as early as July 1, 2013, representatives said last week during a public hearing.
Carolinas HealthCare System announced in April its plans to build the hospital near the intersection of Old Statesville Road and Verhoeff Drive in Huntersville.
But when Mecklenburg County commissioners heard the proposal, many voiced concern that it might take paying patients away from CMC-Randolph, the county-subsidized psychiatric hospital on Billingsley Road.
In response, CHS filed for a certificate of need with the state on May 16. The request doesn't require county approval and would allow the transfer of 44 psychiatric beds from Broughton Hospital in Morganton to the proposed psychiatric hospital in Huntersville.
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Last week, CHS officials held a public hearing for the certificate of need.
"Almost every family or extended family is impacted in some way by mental health disorders," said Dennis Phillips, executive vice president of CHS's metro group. "There's an urgent need for inpatient medical services."
Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people seeking inpatient psychiatric services nationally is expected to rise by 7 percent - from 2 million to just under 2.2 million.
At CMC-Randolph, inpatient occupancy is about 111 percent and regularly exceeds 100 percent occupancy.
The state's target occupancy rate for such facilities is 75 percent.
The overflow means an estimated 20 to 30 psychiatric patients are routinely held in emergency departments and general acute care beds every day waiting for psychiatric bed placement.
Sometimes they must wait for days, said Jim Hunter, the chief medical officer for CHS's Metro Group.
"Perhaps a bed opens up at Broughton, so you're transported there for treatment. But what about your family and support system? What about the doctor who knows you best? They're still in Charlotte," he said.
With the new 44-bed hospital, psychiatric patients can be treated quicker and appropriately, and emergency rooms will be freed up for those seeking medical and operational help, said Hunter.
Several mental health advocates spoke at last week's public hearing.
"I strongly support this based on the recognized need in the community," said Melissa Miller, president of the Mecklenburg Psychological Association.
Added Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce: "For folks to have the opportunity to be property diagnosed and treated... this is a resource that is lacking in our community."
But not everyone is excited about the proposed psychiatric hospital.
Tina Alberni, who lives in the Monteith Place subdivision next to the proposed site in Huntersville, said she's worried about property values as well as the kind of people who will be staying next door.
"I'm not comfortable with having that kind of crowd in my back yard," she said. "I have nothing against the whole concept, but I think there are other areas besides a residential area where they can put it."
Monteith Place HOA president Tom Murphy said about 10 percent of residents have voiced concern about the project - most of them citing the effects on property values.
"There were some concerns initially, but most people don't seem real worried about it," he said. "It's not like it's going to be a psychiatric ward for the criminally insane that the penal system of N.C. is running."
The proposed one-story psychiatric hospital would cost about $24.5 million and would be built on land that CHS owns between I-77 and Old Statesville Road.
The site is near the CHS-owned nursing home, Huntersville Oaks.
The proposed 43,500-square-foot hospital would allow for an expansion to 66 beds and would create 114 full-time positions.
The state review of CHS's certificate of need request ends on Oct. 28, followed by a 35-day appeal period.
Should the state approve the request, CHS could have its certificate of need by Dec. 2.
CHS isn't the only hospital system that plans to treat more psychiatric patients.
Presbyterian Hospital received approval from the state in March to transfer 15 psychiatric beds from Broughton Hospital to its main hospital in Charlotte.
Presbyterian is renovating existing space to make room for the new beds, which they plan to open by the end of the year.
Presbyterian Hospital is licensed for 55 adult psychiatric beds and 20 adolescent beds.
Local hospital expansions of psychiatric service are largely in response to a statewide trend in which more state psychiatric hospitals are closing their doors just as more residents are seeking psychiatric help.
The increased demand for psychiatric services has been exacerbated by the current economic climate in which many residents are facing foreclosure and unemployment.
"I've never seen the state of our behavioral health services where it is today," said Phillips. "We're proposing to do something that will make a difference to many people in our community."