A Superior Court judge ordered the North Adams Regional Hospital emergency room to stay open until an injunction hearing next week.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A Berkshire superior court judge on Thursday afternoon ordered that North Adams Regional Hospital keep its emergency department open at least for the next week.
The order also appoints Berkshire Medical Center Inc. as temporary provider to "alleviate and avoid an immediate threat to the health and safety of the residents in the NBH service area."
Read the order here.
There has been serious concern over the loss of the Emergency Department, which will force patients to drive or be transported up to an hour north or south for services.
Judge John J. Agostini issued the temporary restraining order at the request of the attorney general's office, in conjunction with the state Department of Public Health.
The order was made based on the presumption that the Legislature and Executive Branch will come through with some kind of financial relief package and that an injunction will be issued next week.
Northern Berkshire Healthcare on Tuesday announced the closure of the hospital by the end of this week and its several affiliated services, citing financial failure. More than 500 people are expected to lose their jobs.
The team led by Bart Hollander, chief of the Western Massachusetts Regional Office for Attorney General Martha Coakley, said the basis for an injunction against the closure was the health-care system's failure to provide a 90-day notice of closure, as required by law.
The notification process was designed to prevent a crisis, which is what Northern Berkshire was facing with the loss of emergency services in particular, Hollander said, and prevent harm to the health and safety of the residents.
"The statute exists for the very reasons that bring us here today," he said.
Agostini issued the restraining order pending a hearing for a preliminary injunction next Thursday, April 3, but requested more information on the ambiguity of the services being provided and the need to detail where the funding would come from to keep the facility operating.
"We would expect by next Thursday that question will be resolved," said Robert Ross, chief of the AG's Business and Labor Bureau. The written response to the filing by the attorney for Northern Berkshire Healthcare made it sound as if the court would provide the funding, but Ross said that would have to be a function of the Legislature.
The judge noted the sentence but said he "took it with a grain of salt" as meaning the government in the general terms.
The state Legislature and the governor's office have been working on a funding resolution for the last several days. The hospital is staggering under a significant debt load and failing revenues.
As word of the injunction made its way to the hospital cafeteria, where staff and union reps congregated throughout the afternoon, a spokesman expressed guarded optimism.
"It's encouraging to see evidence of some form of action, albeit somewhat unclear at this minute exactly what that action is," 1199SEIU Communications Director Jeff Hall said.
The order requires NBH to expend all available funds, estimated at $140,000 once all current employee obligations are met from the $2.7 million it has on hand, to keep the emergency room, radiology and pharmacy functioning.
BMC Inc. will take over the operations as a temporary provider as soon as a the DPH authorizes a satellite license. Officials said that could take days or weeks but hoped to fast track the process into days.
Agostini asked for submission by Friday of greater specificity in the wording of "emergency department" to include what was agreed to be radiology, laboratory and pharmacy.
Mary Beckman, the AG's chief of the Non-Profit Organizations/Public Charities Division, said the definitions were deliberately left vague to allow BHS determine the scope.
"We understand the extreme financial distress" NBH is under, she said, but added there was a "commitment to make funding available to secure emergency services at North Adams Regional Hospital."
Northern Berkshire Healthcare said it will comply with the order and will maintain the staffing required to operate the Emergency Department, citing emergency physicians, registered nurses, lab, medical imaging and pharmacy services and support staff.
In a statement, NBH officials said:
"NBH had planned to close the Emergency Department in a safe, planned way to ensure patients were treated in appropriate settings. We are now working to assemble staffing and ensure that we have necessary supplies – neither of which is guaranteed.
We are also required to keep operating until we exhaust the organization’s funds, raising the possibility of running out of money while patients are in our facility. At this time there has been no offer of additional funding from any source."
Berkshire Medical Center said it intends to engage NARH staff to reopen and run the emergency services.
"NARH staff knows the facility, the hospital systems and the community," said David Phelps, president and CEO of BHS, in a statement. "We expect to restore services as soon as DPH completes its licensure review."
BMC officials will also evaluate the on-site services that may be required in what will essentially be a closed hospital.
Employees line up at the Clark House to get their last checks on Thursday night.
The attorney general is asking for a temporary injunction to prevent the hospital's ER from closing for 90 days, according to state regulations, to provide breathing room for other alternatives — presumably the long-term operation by Berkshire Medical Center — to be evaluated.
"As someone who grew up in North Adams, I know firsthand how critical this hospital is to the surrounding community," Coakley said in a statement following the decision. "This injunction is the first step toward preventing an immediate health crisis for the area and keeping emergency services open. We are continuing to work closely with the administration and elected officials to help ensure continued access to critical health services for the entire community."
The order is not expected to affect the pending closures of Northern Berkshire OB/GYN, Northern Berkshire Family Practice, Northern Berkshire General Surgery and VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire. However, there are strong indications that other facilities are interested in supporting or combining with the affiliates. Berkshire Health Systems has already stated it was willing to provide administrative aid and relocation help; Porchlight VNA & Home Care has reportedly approached the Visiting Nurse Association.
Staff member Stephen Dravis contributed to this article. This article has been updated with statements from BHS and NBH, and clarifications on what will be open and what will be closed on Friday.