A statewide privatization proposal would close facilities including Northwest Georgia Regional.

Pivatization of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome would be far better than closing the state-run mental health facility, Sen. Preston Smith said Saturday.

A proposal to close NWGRH as well as others hospitals in Augusta, Savannah, Thomasville and Columbus generated questions from lawmakers Friday during a budget presentation.

The Department of Human Resources has asked for proposals from private companies interested in running two or three new hospitals that would replace the network of regional facilities. The plan is part of a reorganization of mental-health services offered by the department and those by the Department of Community Health, merging them into their own separate department.

Friday’s meeting came on the heels of a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report indicating that NWGRH and the state’s other mental hospital have been providing substandard care.

Smith, R-Rome, said he would do what he could to make sure the facility keeps operating but also pointed out that privatization was discussed years ago with little being done to pursue the option.

“I warned then that failure to consider options for changing the status quo could well result in facility closure, job loss and decreased availability of care,” said Smith, who did not attend Friday’s meeting.

Smith said some states like Florida have seen some benefits in privatization.

“Patient care has seen improvements, illness relapse decreased and most of the former employees of the state facility kept their jobs with the privatized system,” said Smith.

Georgia Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker told members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees during a budget discussion that the reorganization idea is designed to create savings that would then be plowed into creating services in communities across the state. Those new services would treat people with mental illness through regular home visits which would ensure patients are taking their medicines, she said.

“If we can’t get the savings, we can’t get the dollars” for community services, she said.

She pointed to Georgia Regional Hospital in Savannah as an example. It was built to house 35 patients but typically housed 47 — 12 long-term — in a facility not designed for modern treatment practices.

Discussions with families, public officials and patients since the proposals became public last summer have prompted some modifications. In Savannah, the plan now would include constructing a small, long-term hospital for those chronic patients in place of the bigger, older facility.

Another change in the plan announced Friday is the addition of two small hospitals in South Georgia and one centralized facility in Atlanta. The original scheme called for two centralized, state-of-the-art hospitals.

Walker said that before a final decision about the fate of the regional hospitals is made, she will travel the state to hear from the public.

Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer Karissa Stewart contributed to this report.