North County Group Lobbies for Hospital Reopening

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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A coalition advocating for the restoration of the hospital in North Adams traveled to Berkshire Medical Center in a show of solidarity.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A group of dedicated community and union members continued to call for expanded medical services to mark the one-year anniversary of the abrupt closure of North Adams Regional Hospital.

Richard Dasatti of the North County Cares Coalition urged local and state officials — and the facility's new owner Berkshire Medical Center — to reopen the facility as a full-service hospital.

"We will work with Berkshire Health Systems if they will provide a timeline and a commitment to make BMC North a full hospital with inpatient beds equal to their Fairview Hospital in South County," Dasatti said, adding that access to health care is a human right.

He called on new Attorney General Maura Healey to hold public hearings on an investigation started by her predecessor, Martha Coakley, into the circumstances leading up to Northern Berkshire Healthcare's bankruptcy.

State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, said she has been working with state Rep. Ron Mariano, D-Quincy, about developing legislation for community hospitals. Quincy Medical Center, similar to NARH, was closed in December by its owner, Steward Health Care.

"Big hospitals get all the money and the little hospitals get strangled," Cariddi said. "It should be the other way around. The little hospitals should be getting more help and the bigger hospitals should be getting less because of volume."

Cariddi has also filed two bills directly addressing decision-making at hospitals: one would require members of hospital governing bodies to take training in hospital management and ethical and fiduciary responsibilities, the other would address transparency by mandating annual public annual meetings that would allow residents to question hospital officials.

Saturday's weather didn't make it easy for coalition supporters. A brief snowstorm pushed the rally inside City Hall at noon; more than 60 advocates then traveled to Pittsfield in the frigid cold to hold signs across the street from Berkshire Medical Center.

The group founded in the aftermath of the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital has faithfully met each Tuesday since last April — demanding answers about the 126-year-old hospital's closing, tracking the slow restoration of services and ensuring issues related to the health-care needs of the region remain in the forefront of the region's political representatives.

The hospital's closure last year sent shockwaves through the community, affecting more than 500 jobs and leaving a gaping hole in the region's health-care services. NBH had been dogged for years by a staggering debt load, up to $60 million at one point, from money-losing investments such as the so-called "Sweets" nursing home and retirement community.

Hospital officials had tried to woo a larger partner to help stabilize its finances but its debt apparently frightened off suitors. NBH had been in talks with Berkshire Medical Center and its parent, Berkshire Health Systems, right up to the weekend before its closure but negotiations fell through.

BMC has since purchased NBH's assets through U.S. Bankruptcy Court for $4 million and has slowly begun restoring services, including a satellite emergency facility, medical imaging, laboratory, endoscopy and outpatient orthopedic surgery. Other elements including security, housekeeping, maintenance and cafeteria have been somewhat restored at what is now the Northern Berkshire Campus of BMC.

About 250 former Northern Berkshire Healthcare employees have been rehired, some in North Adams and others at the Pittsfield campus. Millions more have been invested in equipment and upgrades in North Adams.

Residents are still hoping for the hospital itself to reopen. The current structure means patients unable to treated in the satellite facility have to be taken to Pittsfield some 25 miles away. That's caused a hardship for patients and families who may have difficulty finding transportation, as well as the mileage being racked up by local ambulance services.

Yasmine Sarkis, a retired nurse, said she's hestitated to go to the North Adams emergency facility for her medical condition because she does not want to be taken to Pittsfield.

"Even using my nursing judgement, I vacillate," she said, adding her elderly neighbors are also reluctant to seek emergency medical attention.

BMC nurses also say the increased patient volume in Pittsfield from the North Adams hospital closing has affected the quality of care and staffing; BMC officials have rejected those claims, saying the medical center in full compliance with staffing and has hired as needed.

A state-commissioned report on the area's health care needs recommends 18-20 beds in North County. Both the report's authors and BMC officials say that is only possible with a federal Critical Access Hospital designation or it would not be financially sustainable.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association has argued that North Adams Regional was profitable — it was the health system and its debt that bankrupted the facility.

Nykole Roche, a strategic researcher for the MNA, noted "the federal government has designated North County as a medically vulnerable community."

The population is poorer both economically and healthwise, with a growing elderly population and higher need of mental and substance abuse services than more affluent South County, where BHS operates the small Fairview Hospital.  

BMC says it would be too costly to reopen the North Adams hospital, said Roche, but "when it comes to Fairview Hospital, different rules apply."

Fairview obtained Critical Access designation more than a decade ago; NARH officials pursued the designation, which provides for higher Medicare reimbursements, but were rejected.

Coalition member James Lipa said there was a great appreciation for what BMC has done, but the area deserves a full-service hospital.

In North Adams, Mayor Richard Alcombright assured the group that elected officials are still working on keeping conversations going. But he, too, insisted that any facility had to be financially viable.

"I don't think any of us have a different vision of what we'd love to see here," he said. "What I need to do is to make certain whatever comes back here is sustainable ... that we're not doing this [again] five or 10 years from now."

Coverage on the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital can be found here.

Tags: BMC North,   NARH,   north county cares coalition,   rally,   

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