Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said his office has been focused on restoring and maintaining emergency services in North County.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The state is committed to supporting the recommendations of a health-care survey being done of North County.
But exactly what those recommendations are won't be clear for some time, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz told the weekly meeting of the Save NARH group.
"We would want to wait to see what they say," he said of the Stroudwater Associates report commissioned by the Department of Public Health. "We have committed to support Berkshire Health Systems for the first year to get the satellite emergency facility up and running. ...
"When Stroudwater comes out, we will have those recommendations."
The report by the health-care consultants is expected to be completed by mid-August and Polanowicz said he's pushing for Stroudwater to include as much local input as possible.
But the secretary wasn't going to speculate on whether those recommendations would mean restoring North Adams Regional Hospital — or determining its failure.
"I'm not looking backward," he said. "I'm really focused on what's going on now."
Rather, said Polanowicz, the health-care vacuum that was created after the abrupt closure of Northern Berkshire Healthcare in March has been a top 10 priority in his department.
The initial push had been to work with Berkshire Health Systems to get the SEF in operation, he said, and next is to work on the licensing for outpatient diagnostic imaging at the former North Adams Regional Hospital that will require both state and federal permitting.
After that, Stroudwater will inform the model for how services should be delivered.
"Running a small community hospital is a challenge no matter what," said Polanowicz, who spent 13 years as CEO of a similar hospital. "We are doubly challenged in the fact that there is not a small community hospital here to run."
He encouraged the group, which as been inviting him to appear for weeks, to embrace the opportunity to develop a new model of medical delivery that would be suitable and sustainable for the region.
"Whatever we start is going to be new. It's going to be something that isn't here today," Polanowicz. "I think we have a tremendous opportunity to get it right this time."
The goal is to get recommendations in front of the Legislature when it goes back in session in the fall, and prior to the end of Polanowicz's cabinet term under outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick.
State Sen Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said he's laying the groundwork with all of the gubernatorial candidates to ensure they understand that health services are a priority.
"I'm sitting and talking with every candidate. ... So there's no blip in the radar," he said, adding that he'll next meet with Republican candidate Charlie Baker.
The state and Berkshire delegation are also investigating grant-funding for health systems, including an infrastructure grant that Berkshire Health Systems has applied for.
Pursuing Critical Access Hospital status is not off the table, said Polanowicz, but would require "heavy lifting" from the state's congressional delegation. The chance for that designation, and its higher Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements, may have passed a few years ago; the hospital's officials at the time did not attempt the status.
And while he isn't looking backward, Polanowicz said the Department of Public Health is reviewing its regulations.
"No one thought you could close a hospital in 60 hours," he said, which has the department wondering if it should put teeth in its regulations. "We're looking at the regulations so we don't have to go through this again."
Other state departments are monitoring Northern Berkshire Healthcare's bankruptcy case and issues surrounding it.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing said he's meeting with every gubernatorial candidate to impress the importance of health care access in the region.
Attorney General Martha Coakley said on Sunday that her office is continuing to investigate the closure, which violated the state's 90-day notice requirement.
"We said early on that we were concerned about the failure to give required notice and we are looking at every aspect of that to determine what happened and why," said Coakley during a stop in Pittsfield for her gubernatorial campaign. She could not say when the investigation would be completed.
Polanowicz, whom Downing and Mayor Richard Alcombright credited with championing the quick response under the circumstances, said he hoped Berkshire Health Systems would win the bidding for NBH's assets.
BHS officials, especially CEO David Phelps, had been willing partner in overcoming some of the difficulties in restoring emergency services in North County, he said. Polanowicz visited the emergency facility prior to Tuesday's meeting and said it is seeing about 50 to 55 patients a day,
The health system, as Berkshire Medical Center, has proffered an initial bid of $4 million as part of its leasing agreement to operate the SEF. The bidding, expected to begin in May has, been pushed into June with a bid deadline of Aug. 12.
"They're in Berkshire County, they know what it is to run a larger organization and smaller organization," said Polanowicz. "They're your neighbors."
Michael O'Brien, a former NARH employee and 1199SEIU official, asked that the community not be forgotten when it came time to reconvene any oversight boards for a new facility.
"We would definitely like to have some input in how it's run," he said.
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