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Erlanger officials announced today they have signed a letter of intent with Murphy Medical Center in Western North Carolina. 

The due diligence process required by the letter of intent should take both organizations about 90 days to complete, with the goal of reaching a definitive agreement on a future relationship by September or October of this year, according to a news release.  

The 25-bed North Carolina hospital, nursing home, athletic rehabilitation center and other facilities serve about 44,000 people.

"Erlanger Health System and Murphy Medical Center have signed an exclusive letter of intent to explore how our organizations can partner more closely to enhance and grow medical services already offered by Murphy Medical Center," said Robert M. Brooks, Erlanger executive vice president and chief operating officer. "This letter of intent is the first step in the process of exploring what the best structure could be for both Murphy Medical Center and Erlanger Health System." 

In May, marketing director Paul DeMichael told the Times Free Press that Murphy Medical Center was in a generally good financial position but was looking for an infusion of cash to continue its growth. The center is about halfway through a management agreement with Carolinas Healthcare System, of Charlotte, N.C., but DeMichael said that agreement hasn't achieved one of the system's top priorities: attracting more medical providers.

"It's very difficult in a rural area like we are to attract and retain doctors," DeMichael said.

Also on Tuesday, Erlanger said it will add a sixth Life Force helicopter to its fleet of air ambulances in August. 

The new air ambulance, operated by Med-Trans Corp., will be based in Andrews, N.C., at the Western Carolina Regional Airport outside of Murphy, N.C. 

"We are extremely pleased that Life Force is now expanding 'critical care in the air' services even further into the western North Carolina region," Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel said in the news release. "Placement of this air ambulance in North Carolina is the result of working closely with surrounding hospitals, state and elected officials for several years. Their overwhelming support has enabled thousands of residents to have quicker access to the region's trauma center when they need it most." 

Patient flights are expected to begin Aug. 15. 

"With an [Instrument Flight Rules] aircraft now based in that region, area residents will have quicker access to a higher level of care with increased safety, particularly when outside visual references are obscured due to weather conditions," the release states.

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