Jean Vankin of the North County Cares Coalition addresses the Williamstown Board of Selectmen on Monday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen on Monday approved a resolution calling on Berkshire Health Systems and state officials to better serve North County residents suffering from opioid addiction.
But after considerable discussion, the board crafted a resolution slightly different from that presented by the North County Cares Coalition, which brought the issue to the attention of the selectmen.
The coalition specifically called for the installation of a detoxification facility at Berkshire Medical Center's North Campus in North Adams. Restoration of services and jobs at the former North Adams Regional Hospital has long been a focus of the NCCC.
Prompted by an editorial change suggested by Selectman Hugh Daley, the Williamstown board ultimately passed a resolution that reads: "In this complex regulatory and operational issue, the Selectboard of the Town of Williamstown support, and call upon our State and Federal elected and appointed officials to support Berkshire Health Systems in its efforts to meet the needs of North County residents with opioid addiction and provide them with the best chance of recovery and services with access convenient to North County residents."
Daley argued on Monday that the goal is to provide services, and it is not for the town board to tell Berkshire Health Systems how to achieve the goal.
"The thought process behind the edits is: We don't know enough about the best way to treat the community that needs this treatment," Daley said. "What we'd like to say to BHS is, 'We support you. Do it in the best possible way. If it turns out the best possible way to do it is in Pittsfield, we support you.' "
Williamstown resident and NCCC member Jean Vankin argued that the original petition language, which she said has been accepted by North Adams, Clarksburg and Adams, does a better job of advocating for the North County community.
"Berkshire Health Systems has given us a lot in North County, but other things, they keep in Pittsfield, which is a hardship for North Adams and the hill towns," Vankin said. "Maybe not for us, but you have to think of the rest of the community. If you live in South Williamstown, it's not that hard to get to BMC. But if you live on Florida Mountain, it's hard enough to get down to North Adams, let alone Pittsfield."
Daley responded that he did not think Williamstown is separated from the rest of North County, but he did not think the town should be telling Berkshire Health Systems what to do, either.
Daley's original draft of the resolution did not include the clause about "access convenient to North County residents." That was added as compromise language suggested during the meeting by Chairman Andrew Hogeland, whose aim was to make sure the resolution passed.
Ultimately, it did, on a vote of 4-1.
The lone dissenting vote came from Selectman Jeffrey Thomas, who expressed deep and long-standing concern about the issue of opioid abuse but raised two objections to the resolution — one specific and one philosophical.
Specifically, he questioned why the resolution called out Berkshire Health Systems when Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt., also has a presence in Williamstown. But more broadly, Thomas said he objected to the Board of Selectmen being in the advocacy business.
"I care about this issue, and I follow it," Thomas said. "But I won't be voting in favor of either of these [drafts] because I don't think it's the place of the Select Board to advocate, nor do I think it's our place to direct any company or non-profit to do anything."
Selectwomen Ann O'Connor and Jane Patton each expressed support for the original NCCC draft of the resolution.
"We're not telling them how to do it," Patton said, referring to the original language. "To me, this reads as a plea for help and a directed plea for help in the far north regions of North Berkshire. I don't read this as us telling Berkshire Health Systems how to do their job. I read it as a cry for help."
O'Connor said Williamstown should follow the same language adopted by other North County communities.
"I think it goes without saying we're not experts," she said. "But since this document serves a role of advocacy, I'm comfortable with the language about North Adams rather than handing them excuses about the regulatory problems they face."
Hogeland said he could live with the NCCC language or the language proposed by Daley but offered the "access" clause as a way to address the concerns expressed by Vankin and her colleagues in the NCCC.
In addition to Vankin, the board on Monday heard from coalition members Martin Greenstein of Williamstown and Richard Dassati of North Adams.
Williamstown resident Wendy Penner spoke about the issue-- not as a member of the NCCC but in her role as director of prevention and wellness for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
"While all of Berkshire County is underserved, particularly North County has a dearth of services," Penner said.
She argued that service providers need to coordinate their effort and advocate for services that help people at all stages of the recovery process — including detox — and implied that local government has a role in that advocacy.
"It is a public health crisis that deserves your attention," Penner said.
Hogeland agreed and thanked the North County Cares Coalition for giving the board an opportunity to address opioids at Monday's meeting.
"It's unanimous in this community that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed," Hogeland said right after the 4-1 vote. "We're just having a little trouble getting to the exact language. This has been another chance to remind the community it's a problem in the community."
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