Local News

House Committee Considers Psychiatric Hospital Location

Posted June 3, 2003

— A House committee voted down competing proposals Tuesday to put a $110 million state psychiatric hospital in either Chatham or Wake counties, but left unresolved where the facility will go.

Despite the votes, supporters of both sites said either could emerge as the winner in the hospital sweepstakes. A third site favored by state health officials - Butner in Granville County - was also expected to struggle to receive a majority vote in the committee, clouding the issue for at least another day.

"I don't think this decision is going to be made necessarily in this committee," said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, whose district includes a portion of Chatham County. "There is a long way to go in this controversy and this battle."

Legislators and state health officials are trying to determine where to place a 430-bed hospital which will replace Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh and John Umstead Hospital in Butner.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Carmen Hooker Odom began pushing lawmakers for a consolidated hospital to replacing the aging facilities after audits and studies questioned whether adequate services could be provided there. One audit recommended closing Dix Hospital.

After further studies, department officials settled on the Butner site, and requested financing from the General Assembly. Instead, some legislators introduced competing bills to bring the hospital to Wake or Chatham counties.

Supporters of the Butner site argue that it has a readily available workforce at John Umstead.

Wake supporters say the county's large population center will make it more convenient to more patients; proponents of the Chatham talk about its central location to the region it will serve.

The House Finance Committee met for an hour-and-a-half Tuesday morning before voting against the Wake and Chatham proposals. An afternoon meeting was canceled, and the committee was expected to consider a proposal to put the hospital in Granville County on Wednesday morning.

If that vote fails, the committee could pass legislation to finance the hospital without specifying a location. The full House could then hash out the issue on the chamber floor, or put the decision back in Hooker Odom's hands.

The bills being considered calls for the project to be financed with certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. The debt would be repaid over 20 years, with initial debt payments would run about $12 million a year.

Health officials estimate they can save more than $50 million in reduce operating costs for the facility, which will be half the size of the existing two hospitals.

Hooker Odom says the saving can be used to repay the debt and put into community-based mental health programs.

The new hospital is being considered as North Carolina overhauls its mental health system to provide more services within communities, rather than state institutions.

Any legislation will also have to have the approval of State Treasurer Richard Moore, who oversees the issuing of state debt, and the 10-member Council of State.

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