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Community Sends Message: We Need Full-Service Hospital In Northern Berkshire

Jim Levulis

It was standing room only at Tuesday night’s meeting in North Adams as area residents explained what healthcare services they need. The region is currently served by a satellite emergency facility following the March closure of North Adams Regional Hospital.

About 25 of the more than 100 people packed into the hall at the North Adams American Legion took to the podium and voiced their opinions. The overwhelming majority said they want and need a full-service hospital, like the one that served 35,000 people and employed roughly 530. Laura Vankin says the 40-minute drive to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield is challenging for the aging population in northwestern Massachusetts and southern Vermont.

“I’m an advocate, and this isn’t necessarily the right form for this, but for more services,” Vankin said. “My father needed dialysis. He couldn’t get to BMC. He never had dialysis. He might have lived longer or been alive still today had he had that service that North Adams [Regional Hospital] wasn’t able to provide. So we need more services, not less services.”

Representatives from the Massachusetts health department and consultant Stroudwater Associates joined union and community members who have met each week since the hospital closed March 28. The Maine-based consulting firm has been working since early June to determine the region’s healthcare needs and how best to meet them. Tammy Meranti suggested a way researchers could better understand residents’ concerns.

“It might be helpful to have someone from Stroudwater experience an actual transport in an ambulance as a patient,” Meranti said to applause from the crowd.

North Adams Ambulance transports between three and five people from the satellite facility operated by BMC to its main Pittsfield hospital each day, according to Chief John Meaney. EMT Amalio Jusino offered that ride and advocated for a full-service hospital.

“We have a high teenage pregnancy rate, we have a narcotics use rate, we have increased poverty levels, we have a decreased median household income…the loss of the hospital just added to all those things,” said Jusino.

Brian Haapala is leading the effort for Stroudwater. He said he would be willing to take that ride, which the crowd approved. Williamstown resident Margot Moomaw says if a facility is established, it needs to provide a mix of services to meet the area’s needs like mental health programs as well as heart disease and diabetes care, while considering economic vitality within a decreasing population.

“Our community needs an adequate and appropriate healthcare system whether or not this involves the restoration of inpatient services,” said Moomaw.

Other services people mentioned as necessary were a wound care center, addiction programs and an acute-care drop-in center. Pastor Ann Clark-Killam expressed concern about the public transit options to and from Pittsfield.

“It’s not a system that assures that these people that are sick enough to be considered for transport are now somehow supposed to be capable of arranging their trip home,” Clark-Killam said. “That’s sick.”

Stroudwater’s Haapala says public input will be used along with demographic and socio-economic studies and information from community stakeholders in developing recommendations, which he expects in mid- to late August. He says more input will be gathered before anything is finalized.

“I think increasingly substance abuse and mental health issues are impacting rural communities so those are important questions to be looking at,” Haapala said. “How those services are being provided.”

Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of BMC, has filed a $4 million bid to buy the North Adams site left by bankrupt Northern Berkshire Healthcare. So far, it’s the only offer with bidding set to close July 31.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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