FARMINGTON — Advocates of a merger between Franklin Community Health Network and MaineHealth testified Thursday that the partnership would lower costs while retaining local control of the Farmington hospital.

Their testimony was part of a required Department of Health and Human Services public hearing that took the merger one step closer to completion.

The two organizations must have certificate of need applications approved by DHHS to move forward. There will also be an antitrust review request. If all is approved, the merger is expected to be completed by late this year.

Franklin Memorial Hospital has a history of working with other members and affiliates of the MaineHealth system, which is a nonprofit group of providers with locations throughout southern and central Maine. The two’s partnerships include collaborating with Maine Medical Center for cardiology and cardiovascular care, and neonatal care at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

The possibility of a formal merger with MaineHealth was first publicly discussed in September at the hospital’s annual business meeting. After six months of research, the board of directors unanimously voted to pursue a merger, saying the decision was made to protect the delivery and quality of health care in the area.

President and CEO Rebecca Aresnault said the hospital is applying for the merger to protect the quality of health care in the area in the long term, despite challenging economic times.

“Our relationship with a larger health care system will support us as we strive to provide quality, accessible care locally to the 40,000 residents in our service area,” she said.

About 30 officials attended the public hearing Thursday, and those who addressed the room spoke generally on behalf of the merger, with the only concern being that the hospital maintain local control of its operations.

Attorney Paul Mills, also a historian, said the hospitals in the area have consolidated before and noted the Franklin Memorial Hospital was formed from merging smaller private hospitals like the Dr. Bell Hospital in Strong and the Dr. York Hospital in Wilton.

“I think collaboration is certainly compelling and certainly not unprecedented,” he said. “After 75 years, perhaps it’s about time for another one.”

Fenwick Fowler, executive director of Western Maine Community Action, said he supports the merger because the economy of scale the small, rural hospital could achieve by partnering with MaineHealth.

The community “has chosen to age in place,” he said, and will continue to demand more health care and MaineCare.

Along with the cost savings, Fowler said the merger is not expected to take away autonomy.

“It appears local control will be maintained,” he said.

University of Maine at Farmington President Kathryn Foster told the 30 attendees that the university has benefited by being part of the larger University of Maine System, where it runs its own daily operations but collaborates with the whole system. Foster said the hospital also serves as a draw to the area, like three years ago when she was considering moving to Maine.

“It mattered to me, when I was being recruited here,” she said.

Scott Landry, of Shiretown Insurance, said his own company had merged with a larger insurance group and said as long as the hospital’s individual identity is not lost in the move, the partnership could be a good thing.

“In these challenging economic times, size is important,” he said.

Additional written comments about the merger must be mailed by 5 p.m., Monday, May 5, to the DHHS Licensing and Regulatory Services, Certificate of Need Unit, Station House Station 11, 41 Anthony Ave.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 kschroeder@centralmaine.com