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In Crisis

Franklin mental health facility slowly adding capacity

  • A floor plan of Franklin Regional Hospital's Designated Receiving Facility that just opened with 10 beds. <br/><br/>(Courtesy LRGHealthcare/DiGiorgio Associates Inc.)

    A floor plan of Franklin Regional Hospital's Designated Receiving Facility that just opened with 10 beds.

    (Courtesy LRGHealthcare/DiGiorgio Associates Inc.)

  • A floor plan of Franklin Regional Hospital's Designated Receiving Facility that just opened with 10 beds. <br/><br/>(Courtesy LRGHealthcare/DiGiorgio Associates Inc.)
Ellen Wolff, chief nursing office and senior vice president of patient care services at LRGHealthcare. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Ellen Wolff, chief nursing office and senior vice president of patient care services at LRGHealthcare.

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Two months after opening, a new psychiatric services unit at Franklin Regional Hospital is operating at about half capacity, with plans to be fully operational by the end of the year, officials there said.

The unit, called a designated receiving facility, will have 10 beds and about 24 full-time staff when it’s completely up. So far, it’s made just a little dent in the overall availability of mental health care in the state, but “any addition of beds is helpful,” said Jay Couture, executive director of Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth and president of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association.

Designated receiving facilities are the only options other than the New Hampshire Hospital in Concord for providing care to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

The Franklin facility has staff to serve five patients at a time; more staff are being trained and will be ready by January, said Ellen Wolff, chief nursing officer and senior vice president for patient care services at LRGHealthcare, which oversees the Franklin hospital and Lakes Regional General Hospital in Laconia.

A 10-year plan written in 2008 by mental health advocates advised increasing the number of these beds statewide to at least 48; at full capacity, the Franklin unit will bring the total to 34.

“We knew there was a big need, and while we don’t see this as the solution to the entire problem, we really wanted to be a model for other hospitals who might want to do something like this,” Wolff said.

The unit includes two single rooms and four doubles, a seclusion room for patients in acute distress, and areas for group therapy sessions and secure medication storage.

It also includes a courtroom, because patients committed involuntarily are guaranteed a hearing in front of a judge within 72 hours of admission.

Wolff had tried in 2007 and 2009 to open a psychiatric unit at the hospital but low Medicaid reimbursement rates made it unfeasible, she said.

The state budget increased funding for mental health services by $28 million over the next two years.

During the unit’s first two months, it has received patients from all regions of the state, and one from Vermont, admitted from hospital emergency rooms, Wolff said. Exact numbers of admissions so far weren’t available this week.

The most common patient diagnoses have been personality disorders and schizophrenia, she said.

Visitors have also come from other hospitals in the state, looking to see if they might be able to replicate the unit, which was fitted into a closed obstetrics wing with minor renovations over the summer.

Wolff said she was also working with state officials to expand access to emergency mental health care for children.

The unit only serves adults, and the turnover of beds for children at New Hampshire Hospital is much slower than it is for adults, she said.

If that project moves forward, it would most likely be five or six beds at the Laconia hospital, Wolff said.

The lack of beds for children leaves some young patients waiting days in emergency rooms. One 10-year-old girl in the Laconia emergency room last week had been waiting for an appropriate placement for mental health care for 12 days, Wolff said.

On Thursday morning, 21 adults and four children waited in emergency rooms across the state for mental health services they could only get at the state hospital in Concord, or in a designated receiving facility such as the one in Franklin.

Earlier in the week, the waiting list had fallen to 13, Couture said.

“I feel awful for those families. It’s still horrible for every person waiting for care in an inappropriate place, so I don’t want to lose sight of that, but for a system that has had as many as 50 people, it’s improvement,” she said. “I want to celebrate the day we have zero people waiting. I’m sure everybody does.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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