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The planned Erlanger Behavioral Health Center is seen is this rendering.

Erlanger's proposed 88-bed mental health hospital is a step closer to reality after the Regional Planning Commission on Monday approved a zoning change needed to build the facility. But Erlanger officials said they still face opposition from a competitor, Hospital Corporation of America, which operates two mental health facilities in Chattanooga.

The planning commission voted to approve Erlanger's application, rejecting a staff proposal to require the plan for the hospital to be changed to move parking to the rear of the facility. The zoning change now must be approved by the county commission next month.

But the new hospital still must get approval from state officials, who must decide whether any new in-patient medical facility is needed.

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Erlanger Medical Center is shown in this file photo.

Erlanger officials said after the planning commission vote that their understanding is that HCA, which owns Parkridge Health System, will oppose their plans.

"Legal counsel to HCA has sent a letter to the [certificate of need] agency indicating that they intend to object to the approval of the new project," Joe Winick, Erlanger Health System senior vice president for planning, analytics and business development, said in an e-mail.

But Parkridge Health System President and CEO Darrell Moore was non-committal.

"We are still reviewing the certificate of need application and assessing the impact this may have for the behavioral health services in our community and at our hospitals," Moore said in a statement Monday afternoon.

He noted that Parkridge has been providing mental health services in Chattanooga for more than 40 years.

Winick said in an interview after Monday's commission meeting that he believed there was more than enough need for the new hospital.

"There is no intent on Erlanger's part to take patients that would otherwise go to [Parkridge] Valley," he said. "They are already at Erlanger."

Winick said patients may arrive at Erlanger's emergency room needing both medical and psychiatric services. While the hospital can provide the medical services, it may take as long as four or five days to find a bed in another facility to provide the mental health services, he said.

"There's a tremendous need for behavioral health services both in the community and in the region," Winick said.

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There are now several hospitals in the metro area that offer mental health services. The state-operated Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute is the place where patients requiring involuntary long-term care end up, including those involved in crimes. While Moccasin Bend has 150 beds, it serves more than 50 counties, so bed space is often not available.

Parkridge offers short-term in-patient and out-patient care at its two Parkridge Valley campuses, one aimed at adults and the other at juveniles and children. The two facilities combined have 172 beds.

Donna Maddox, executive director of Johnson Mental Health in Chattanooga, said she believes the Erlanger facility is needed. While Johnson generally does not offer in-patient services, the facility's crisis team frequently identifies patients who need that care, she said.

"We've had people sit in our walk-in center for 72 hours waiting for a bed," she said. "That taxes both the individual and their families. If Erlanger is approved and is able to open up more beds, that will serve our population well."

Erlanger's proposed hospital would provide short-term in-patient care, as well as outpatient services, Winick said.

"These are your neighbors, the elderly dealing with depression, bipolar people," he said. "This is short-term care, from seven to 10 days."

The hospital would be a joint venture between Erlanger Health System and Franklin, Tenn.-based Acadia Healthcare, which operates 539 behavioral health care facilities in 39 states, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom. Unlike Erlanger, the hospital would be for-profit, so it would have a separate board of directors and operate separately from the rest of Erlanger, Winick said. He said the hospital would employ more than 200 staffers.

Erlanger would move its current 14-bed geriatric psychiatry program from Erlanger North Hospital to the new facility, Winick said. Erlanger North staffers would be guaranteed their jobs at the new hospital, with no loss of seniority.

Winick told the planning board that the hospital has reached out to residents of the nearby Bushtown neighborhood to get their approval for the project. Neighborhood Association President Peggie Kilpatrick told the commission her members approved of the proposal.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfree press.com, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.

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