Supporter pick up lawn signs to support the hospital at the American Legion on Tuesday. A meeting is planned each week at 5 to update former employees and the community on efforts to restore services.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The hope of swiftly reopening at least the Emergency Department at North Adams Regional Hospital has bogged down over bankruptcy, leasing options and federal approvals.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said a major obstacle has become leasing terms put forth by the trustee assigned to the case by U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Berkshire Medical Center, designated to operate the facility by Berkshire Superior Court, is being asked to rent the entire facility, not just the emergency room.
"I expressed my strong displeasure with Sen. [Benjamin] Downing and Secretary [of Health and Human Services John] Polanowicz with the trustee's ... inaction with respect to how they're handling the leasing of the ER back to Berkshire Health," the mayor told former hospital employees and community supporters on Tuesday night.
"The fact that they want to lease the entire building back, and that becomes cost-prohibitive and it creates a lot of questions and it slows down the process."
He compared it to getting a room and the Holiday Inn and being forced "to rent the whole damn place."
"I hope we can get some pressure to move this whole thing along," he said.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association and 1199SEIU, representing workers at the former Northern Berkshire Healthcare, are hoping to increase that pressure next Tuesday by taking a road trip to Beacon Hill with two or more filled chartered buses. They're also passing out posters, lawn signs and T-shirts to get the message out.
In the meantime, the community continues to deal with the fallout from the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital two weeks ago.
More than 120 people attended the now weekly gathering at 5 p.m. at the American Legion on Tuesdays for updates on what many are calling a "public health crisis" and discuss ways to advocate for the return of emergency services.
Alcombright speculated the leasing terms may be "posturing" but also noted the judge presiding over the bankruptcy "seems very sympathetic or receptive to weighing the health of our community over the bondholders — which is a very, very good thing."
John Meaney Jr., general manager of the North Adams Ambulance Service, said extra personnel have been put on duty and a leased ambulance temporarily added to the fleet (a new one has been ordered) to bring the total number of vehicles to six.
"We have increased fuel costs now, wear and tear on the vehicles," he said. Along with the longer transports to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, that's going to mean higher bills for patients.
Meaney was confident that the extra ambulance and mutual aid network with Adams and Village ambulance services would be sufficient.
"I think we're prepared as we're going to be at this point," he said.
But the ambulance service on Harris Street may be becoming a substitute for an emergency room.
Assistant Chief Amalio Jusino said a man had shown up at the ambulance with skyrocketing blood pressure after driving to the hospital and finding it closed. He couldn't make it to Pittsfield.
"Four times in the past week, we've had people self present to the ambulance service," Jusino said.
The BMC maternity ward is also filling up with North County babies.
"We have been getting some of your patients," said Kate Buckley, a BMC maternity nurse. "We had five the first day and we've had at least one a day since and they're being all taken care of."
But, she said, the numbers are putting a strain on her department because of layoffs two years ago because of declining births. "Now we have yours."
• Northern Berkshire Community Coalition is sponsoring a forum on how professionals can help the community on Friday at 10 at First Baptist Church
• A resource fair for those affected by the closings will be held at the MCLA Church Street Center on Friday from 1 to 4.
• Affected workers can also contact the Berkshire Community Action Council at 85 Main St. for help with heating fuel and other needs.
A representative from Berkshire Nursing Families said efforts are being made to reach out to mothers giving birth at BMC but the coordination between hospital and lactation experts is "no longer seamless."
Others worried about what happens to patients left in Pittsfield once the ambulance leaves.
"What happens at 10 o'clock at night and you get transferred to Berkshire Medical Center?" asked one woman. "The taxis aren't running. Are you going to end up being a vagrant ... and be kind of having to hang out in the emergency room until daylight hours?"
Deborah Leonczyk, interim executive director Berkshire Community Action Council, said a cooperative effort is looking into transportation difficulties and a couple of the banks in North Adams have indicated a willingness to fund a piece of it.
"We're trying to coordinate an effort throughout this part of the county where everybody takes a piece of the responsibility," she said. "We come up with a schedule of transportation that people can expect."
Ann Clark-Killam, pastor of First Congregational Church, later said the Berkshire Food Project's free lunch program at her church is seeing a definite increase in patrons, in part because of federal cuts in the food stamp program but also the losses of part-time and lower-paying jobs at the hospital.
The good news is that Northern Berkshire Healthcare affiliates Visiting Nurse Association is operating, and Northern Berkshire Family Medicine and Northern Berkshire OB/GYN are continuing in their current locations for the time being.
More than 100 people have been hired by Berkshire Health Systems, including in preparation for the reopening of an emergency or triage facility.
Michael Fadel of the MNA said the two unions had been in contact with Berkshire Health System's labor lawyer.
"Their initial position is they were going to recognize the union but they weren't going to recognize seniority," he said. "They were reserving the right to call back people in any order they wanted."
Fadel said union members would meet later to form a response but it wasn't the focus of this meeting, nor has it been a priority.
"This issue has not been the focus of our efforts. The focus of our efforts had been to get services up and running but obviously they can only be running with people," he said. "There's got to be fairness for everybody who's been fighting all the way as well."
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