Hospital Closure Leaves North County Wondering

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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The emergency room will close Friday morning, forcing patients to travel north to Bennington, Vt., or south to Pittsfield.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Now what?

That's the reaction of many in the Northern Berkshire community after Tuesday's announcement that North Adams Regional Hospital and its affiliates will close by week's end.

A query on Facebook of how the closure will affect residents, resulted in a flood of "shocked" and "heartbroken" posts by community members unsure of how they will get the medical care they need.

"As the mother of a cardiac child, it is very scary to know help is now even further away should something happen," wrote Robin Bellows.

The closure will force North County residents to Pittsfield and Bennington, Vt., a 45- to 60-minute ride during high-traffic times. It also means even fewer doctors in an area that's gone begging for primary-care physicians and obstetricians. The medical coverage of area is further complicated by the two colleges and their more than 3,000 students.

(The closure does NOT affect Williamstown Medical Associates, Northern Berkshire Pediatrics, Hillcrest Dental and practices in the doctor's building, which is not part of NBH.)

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing was critical of the Northern Berkshire Healthcare trustees' decision to close.

"I'm disappointed that the board acted today because I didn't think they needed to," the Pittsfield Democrat said. "I'm hopeful and continuing to work to look at every angle, whether regulatory or funding, to secure, to preserve the services and the jobs."

Downing said he has been working for some time with officials including Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal to find a solution to "an extraordinary situation."

"None of us have never been through this before," he said. "It's a lot of trying to understand what's out there and what the obligations of the hospital are to the community."

He held out hope that something could be done to prevent the closure or reopen the facility "immediately."  

"No matter what the decisions were that led to that, this community needs a hospital," said the senator. "We can't give up on that.

"I'm going to keep fighting until I've looked everywhere."

Berkshire Health Systems says it has implemented an emergency plan to accept an increased volume patients.

"As much as we hoped this day would not come, we are fully prepared," Diane Kelly, BMC's chief operating officer, said in a statement. "BMC, like all hospitals, has a solid emergency preparedness plan in place and is prepared to care for Northern Berkshire patients and their families who are being transferred here."

The two health-care systems have partnered in a number of areas, including cardiology, urology and primary care in Northern Berkshire. BHS says it will continue to work with other providers to ensure ongoing health-care services in those communities.

"The loss of a community hospital is tragic for its employees, patients and families who depend upon its services, and we will do all we can to provide ongoing services by building on our existing partnerships in Northern Berkshire," said BHS President and CEO David Phelps.

North Adams Ambulance Service, which also provides coverage to Stamford and Readsboro, Vt., is evaluating how the closure will affect its services.

A statement from 1199SEIU, the union representing licensed practical nurses and other hospital workers, said it is asking state officials to intervene in a "life and death" situation and blaming the low payments from Medicaid for hospital's financial situation.

The health-care system was estimating $2.5 million in losses this fiscal year as part of the federal health insurance reform and the effects of the government sequestration last year.

"This closure is unacceptable. Unfortunately, this crisis in North Adams is indicative of significant problems and disparities within the broader Massachusetts health care financing system," said Veronica Turner, executive vice president for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "Community hospitals in Massachusetts are in crisis largely as a result of low Medicaid rates and the disproportionately higher commercial payments made to higher-cost hospitals."

The closure of the 129-year-old hospital, one of the largest employers in North County, follows the loss earlier this year of another longtime city standard bearer - the North Adams Transcript.

"What a blow to North Adams ... the lost jobs and money flowing into the city will hurt the community economically, and the loss of access to health care equally devastating," posted Louis Axt Jr. "I hope and pray some solution shows itself and a complete closing can be avoided."

Tags: hospital,   NARH,   

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