James Gander urged the hospital to begin admitting patients from outside Berkshire County to keep Greylock Pavilion open.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A community forum held to brainstorm options over the closure of the psychiatric unit at North Adams Regional Hospital came up with one solution: Keep it open.
Or at least keep it open long enough to find another way to provide critical mental health services in North Berkshire.
"It's a last hurrah, if you will, to keep the pavilion open," said Deborah Sadowy, president of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness of Berkshire County, told some 50 community members at the American Legion on Tuesday night. "Even though there was a hearing, it doesn't appear that the public who use the services have been addressed."
Sadowy and NAMI Executive Director Brenda Carpenter moderated the forum, sponsored by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, NAMI, Adams Council on Aging, Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, Elder Services of Berkshire County, Elizabeth Freeman Center, Service Employees International Union 1199, and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 54.
Those groups have been critical of a decision by the hospital to close Greylock Pavilion, a secure center for mental health patients and the only one in North Berkshire, on Jan. 2. Many who attended a public hearing held by the Department of Public Health in November opposed the plan, saying it will create hardships for patients and families alike.
The DPH has found the services to be necessary to the area but is not in a position to prevent the unit's closure. Hospital officials say eliminating some services while focusing on more profitable units, such as surgery, are critical to keeping the community hospital open.
Sadowy said the purpose of the forum was to come up with ways to address mental health services without the hospital.
"Use our imaginations to come with a community solution what would be the best solution for the individuals that are being serviced," she said. "We're going to think beyond money, we're going to think beyond staffing ... it's about the individuals, it's not about the personalities."
Despite that admonition, the conversation continued to focus on the hospital's decision to treat mental health patients through the emergency room and outpatient services; those needing to be admitted would be transported to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield more than half-hour away. Families being forced to make the drive would be provided with bus vouchers or use a service contracted by the hospital.
Diane George, an emergency room nurse, said the ER was not the place for patients having mental health crises.
"We can take care of the physical aspects but we cannot take care of the psychological aspects as a whole as well as Greylock can," she said. "We don't have money to keep a nurse, we don't have money to keep a unit, but we have money now to transport all of these people, and patients and families to BMC."
MNA Labor Representative James Gander accused hospital officials of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: Greylock Pavilion was not cost-effective because there weren't enough patients but patients weren't being admitted, making it a loss-leader.
"The hospital set the discussion up as money and challenges hospitals are facing everywhere," he said. "But you cannot operate a psychiatric unit by not admitting patients."
He and others asked what the break-even point would be in admissions, or for figures on how it would jeopardize the hospital to keep the unit open three more months. "Here is a solution: Start admitting patients," said Gander.
Dr. Arthur Turton, a trustee of the hospital's parent corporation, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, said if the changes weren't made there was a chance of losing the hospital altogether.
"The hospital's finances are dire and this is part of our plan to save the rest of the hospital," he said. "This is part of a strategy to prevent that from happening while still serving our community, improving our outpatient psychiatric services, and dealing with the real need for inpatient services in conjunction with Berkshire Medical Center."
Turton saw a disconnect in community members being reluctant "to go 17-20 miles to Berkshire Medical Center" but offering a solution that means "accepting patients from all over the state and from other states."
Mayor Richard Alcombright said he has continued to speak about the issue with state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, who was unable to attend, and that the hospital's circumstances were a high priority.
"I have very deep concerns about the ability of the hospital to stay in business ... their cash reserves are lower and lower," said state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, who added the hospital may not be able to make payroll by March. The community should be rallying around NARH, she said. "I don't want to see this place go."
Some of the suggestions included contacting state officials, sending ideas for solutions to the closure to NBH trustees, and seeking federal or state funding sources. Others thought it time to move on to a new mental health structure.
"We have nurses who need jobs, we have patients who need nurses," said Richard Dassatti of the April 4th Coalition, who suggested moving away from a corporate model to start a pilot not-for-profit facility. "Make the nurses stakeholders ... Just like we have community-supported agriculture, we need community-supported social services."
Others thought the community should be thinking bigger and outside the box to take the lead in treating psychiatric problems.
"We need to take a stand about medical care in this country and let it begin here," said Daniel Connerton.
iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.