Southwestern Vermont Health Care CEO Thomas Dee makes a pitch for 'north of the border' health care at the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — By focusing on outpatient services, affiliating with a larger institution and embracing 21st century needs, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center is nearing its centennial stronger than ever.
And it is nearer to North Berkshire than most people realize.
Southwestern Vermont Health Care CEO Thomas Dee spoke to members of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce at the Orchards Inn on Tuesday about the strides the Bennington, Vt., facility has made in recent years and to encourage North County residents to think about SVMC as an option.
"We were as surprised as you were by the news in North Adams," Dee said, adding that leaders at the Vermont institution knew there were challenges facing North Adams Regional Hospital before its closure this spring. (Berkshire Medical Center on Monday reopened emergency services in the hospital).
"We're here to provide options where it makes sense."
Dee and his colleagues who attended the chamber breakfast admitted there is a perception issue when it comes to seeking health care across state lines.
"Today, anyone can use the hospital from 'south of the border,' here, as you might say," Dee said.
Dee and SVHC Chief Financial Officer Steve Majetich, a Williamstown resident, reinforced what SVMC has been trumpeting on billboards around the area: the Vermont hospital now accepts all Massachusetts health insurance plans.
That includes MassHealth, Majetich said in answer to a question from state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, who attended the event.
"We're a MassHealth provider," he said. "We're working on getting all the doctors into the system. MassHealth has been cooperative about getting doctors' paperwork processed as they are needed."
Dee said if any Massachusetts resident is told they cannot access services "over the border," he or she should contact Southwestern Vermont directly, and the hospital will be happy to help him or her through the insurance process.
And there is much to recommend in the small-town hospital next door, Dee said.
For one thing, although SVMC is small, it is partnered with one of the largest regional hospitals in Northern New England: Lebanon, N.H.'s, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
"We're not big enough to do it on our own," said Dee, who came to SVMC four years ago, a couple of years before the partnership was formed with Dartmouth-Hitchcock. "We needed a partner, and we chose Dartmouth.
"We're moving away from being a small health-care system that's independent to integrating ourselves with a partner."
Later, in response to a question about what lessons SVMC may have learned from the abrupt closure of NARH, Dee returned to the theme of the Dartmouth affiliation.
"The future of health care is not being a rugged individual and going it alone," he said. "The Dartmouth affiliation will continue to be crucial."
Since the affiliation, Southwestern Vermont has been able to recruit 15 new "key physicians," said Dee, implying that the partnership makes the Bennington facility more attractive to top talent.
SVMC patients soon will see a new impact of the Soutwestern Vermont-Dartmouth alliance when specialists at the New Hampshire facility begin providing telemedical services to patients at the Bennington hospital.
"Starting in two weeks with the rheumatology department ... there will be a Dartmouth-Hitchcock doctor coming down one or two days a week, and the rest of the time he'll be providing telemedicine services," Dee said. "It's pretty exciting stuff."
Chamber Executive Director Jennifer Civello said she recently had the opportunity to see telemedicine technology in action during a visit to Southwestern Vermont.
"We've all Skyped in a meeting," she said. "We've all teleconferenced. This telemedicine piece is going to be huge. It provides for a really in-depth conversation. It speeds up the process and makes your care easier."
"Telemedicine is a game-changer," Dee said, adding that even Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the 381-bed teaching hospital of Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine, is partnering with a larger institution, Minnesota's Mayo Clinic.
Dee talked about some of the other distinctions that set Southwestern Vermont apart from the crowd, including the fact that it is a "Magnet Hospital," certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the only hospital in Vermont where all the Emergency Department physicians are board-certified and emergency-trained.
Southwestern Vermont is adding telemedicine suites to the main hospital in Bennington and its Wilmington, Vt., satellite facility. SVHC also has a satellite facility in Manchester, Vt.
The Bennington hospital has 249 beds on its campus — 99 in the hospital and 150 in long-term care, Dee said. On an average day, it has about 50 percent occupancy in the hospital.
Going forward, Southwestern Vermont plans to keep its emphasis on outpatient care because that is the direction the industry is headed, Dee said.
"Our future is geared toward building outpatient primary-care ambulatory infrastructure," Dee said.
Southwestern Vermont is in the process of adding more physician office space, and in the next couple of months, it plans to announce seven-day-a-week, same-day service for patients seeking a primary care physician without an appointment, Dee said.
At the moment, the Bennington facility has no plans to expand into Massachusetts. Regulatory issues would complicate any attempt to operate beyond Vermont's borders, Dee said.
"Right now, the plan is to get as close to the state line as possible without crossing the state line," he said. "But I wouldn't take it off the table in the future."
In the meantime, Southwestern Vermont is working on a marketing campaign to let North County residents know more about the services available about 11 miles from the Williamstown-Pownal, Vt., line.
"I think the line will start to blur in terms of the border," Dee said. "And I think that will be good for health care."
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