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Novant Health announced that the facility, located 30 miles northeast of Raleigh, will shut its doors on Friday after several years of declining business.

By Taylor Sisk

Winston-Salem-based Novant Health announced that Franklin Medical Center in Louisburg will cease operations at 7 a.m. on Friday, after several years of declining utilization.

Louisburg, the county seat of Franklin County, is 30 miles northeast of Raleigh.

As of Friday, Franklin Medical Center will be shut down. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

Novant said in a press release that it will work with patients on an individual basis to coordinate ongoing care and with staff to find new employment.

This is the third rural hospital closure in North Carolina in less than two years. Vidant Pungo Hospital, in the eastern North Carolina town of Belhaven, closed in February of last year, and Yadkin Valley Community Hospital, in the central region of the state, closed this past May.

According to the National Rural Health Association, more rural hospitals have closed since January 2013 than in the previous decade combined.

Declining use

“The decision to close a hospital may be the most difficult one a health system ever faces,” Novant senior vice president Patrick Easterling said in the announcement. “We care deeply about our patients and the communities we serve, and this is something we take very seriously.”

But, Easterling said, utilization of Franklin Medical Center has “declined significantly over several years.”

Novant reconfigured the hospital last October, eliminating all but 15 of its 70 inpatient beds. Thirteen of those 15 were reserved for seniors with dementia and other geriatric disorders. Novant reported at the time that its average inpatient count for the year was fewer than 20.

Signs supporting Pungo Hospital dot the roadsides near Belhaven, a small coastal town. Rural hospitals are often the economic drivers of their towns, and one of the largest employers. Credit: Hyun Namkoong

Rural hospitals are facing a number of challenges today, including less need for inpatient beds as more procedures are performed on an outpatient basis.

A ‘savior’

Novant officials wrote last week that the “decision to cease operations comes after more than a year of intensive discussions, operational changes and exploring alternatives to keep the doors open. It also comes after significant investments by Novant Health to improve the hospital, including a 7,500-square-foot geriatric behavior health unit in 2013.”

Chris Szwagiel, Franklin County’s health director, said Novant put out a prospectus in hopes someone would be interested in taking over operation of the hospital. “But,” he said, “evidently, the timetable expired and they decided the only recourse for them was to board up.

“I think everybody was hoping somebody would come in and be the savior, and that just didn’t happen. At least not yet.”

Szwagiel said he anticipates his department will be tasked to do triage to assess where to send people, and that he will be relying heavily on the county’s EMTs to get people as quickly as possible to where they need to go.

The nearest emergency department is at Maria Parham Medical Center in Henderson, about 20 miles away, but Szwagiel said most often the EMTs go to WakeMed, about 30 miles, because it’s a straight shot down U.S. 1.

Szwagiel said he’s working to secure partners to provide at least short-term solutions to needs – partnering with Wake Radiology in Wake Forest, for example, and bringing mobile mammography into the county.

“We’re working to ramp up in general,” he said.

This situation, Szwagiel said, “has left us in a big lurch.”

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