By Liora Engel-Smith
Health officials showered accolades on the state health department’s newest psychiatric facility at an outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony in Morganton on Wednesday. Officials touted the new Broughton Hospital’s roughly 477,000 square-feet structure’s sunny hallways, onsite pharmacy and dental clinic and bathrooms that offer patients a modicum of privacy.
The red-brick structure’s debut came roughly five years late, as multiple construction delays derailed the $130 million project. At the building’s dedication this week, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged these hurdles while stressing that many of them happened before she assumed office in 2017.
“It should have never taken this long to get to this moment,” she said. “Building the right facility to provide this critical care was hard, but we wanted to make sure we did it right so that it will serve the people of western North Carolina as proudly and for as long as the existing facility has.”
The new Broughton facility marks the end of a more than a decade-long process to update and upgrade the state’s psychiatric hospitals, Sec. Cohen said. The state opened Central Regional Hospital in Butner in 2008, and around the same time sought to shut down the now-defunct Dorthoea Dix state hospital in Raleigh. The next two projects — Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, and Broughton — experienced significant delays. At a little over seven years, Broughton’s construction took the longest. During that time, Broughton’s completion date had been pushed back seven times.
Cherry, which opened to patients in 2016, was delayed by roughly three years. At the time, the health department blamed the delay on the contractor. The department also attributed Broughton’s construction delays to the project’s contractor and eventually fired the firm in 2017.
After the ceremony, Cohen said no major construction projects are on the horizon for any of the state’s mental health facilities.
Increasing capacity, improving care
The old Broughton psychiatric hospital has 297 beds and serves as the receiving facility for about a third of the state’s population in 37 largely rural counties in the western part of the state. It serves adults and adolescents with acute mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders. According to the most recent patient census, almost 700 people were treated there in state fiscal year 2016.
The new building has space for up to 382 beds, according to the health department, though the expansion will happen gradually. The state health department already partially filled the roughly 150 positions needed for the expansion in a job fair in May. As of this week, some positions remain open, the state’s job portal shows.
The 275 patients currently at the legacy hospital are expected to move to the new building sometime in late September, according to a news release from DHHS. And having the patients all under one roof, said Deputy Secretary Kody Kinsley, moves away from outdated designs of psychiatric units.
“The old campus is beautiful,” Kinsley said, referring to the historic buildings that dot the campus. “But patients and staff were spread too far apart. Clinical staff were located apart from patients. Now treatment team offices are in patient care areas.”
The Morganton campus is home to the Avery building, whose iconic dome still towers over the area. The gothic structure was home to the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Though patients will no longer stay the Avery building or any of the other legacy facilities, Kinsley said, the department will continue to maintain them and some ancillary functions will continue to be housed there. DHHS officials are still assessing how to use some of the historic buildings that will remain vacant after the move, a spokeswoman said in an email on Thursday.
In line with current understanding of mental health, Broughton’s new building features large windows that let in natural light, several courtyards and muted colors. There are also dedicated areas for art therapy, and rooms where patients could learn life skills, including cooking and doing laundry. And in recognizing the interconnectedness of physical and mental health, the new facility also has a dental clinic, radiology department and pharmacy.
Whereas some rooms in the old buildings housed up to six patients, Kinsley said, the new building only has single and double rooms with access to semi-private bathrooms. That added layer of privacy, he said, will improve patient comfort while keeping them safe with features such as doors that can easily come off in an emergency.
The design of the new building, Cohen said, “can’t help but inspire healing.” Even as she called the new facility a win for Morganton and the region, Cohen said the General Assembly will have to appropriate the funds required to make additional hires at Broughton.
“As we dedicate this new hospital building, I am sure you all know that our work is just beginning,” she said. “We have a lot of hard, hard work ahead of us. We now must fill this new campus with new stories of compassion and recovery.”