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Community Continues Request For Full-Service Hospital Following State Report

Jim Levulis

The second of two public meetings discussing the results of a healthcare needs report for the Northern Berkshires was held this morning in North Adams. The report follows the March closure of North Adams Regional Hospital.

About 60 people were at the meeting, which followed Tuesday night’s standing room only crowd of roughly 220 at the Church St. Center at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The meetings come about a week after Stroudwater Associates released the state-commissioned report aimed at assessing the region’s healthcare needs and how best to meet them in the wake of the closure of North Adams Regional. It recommends sustaining emergency services being provided at the site now owned by Berkshire Health Systems, but only offering inpatient services if it is federally designated as a Critical Access Hospital. That status allows for increased reimbursement rates.

People like Mike Wilber and Clarksburg Town Administrator Carl McKinney continue to argue for the return of a full-service hospital.

“Without it, we are going to die,” said Wilber answered by applause.

“We have lost our churches, we have lost our newspaper, I don’t want to lose our hospital,” said McKinney.

Since June Stroudwater has reviewed data, met with area stakeholders, and held community forums to produce the 100-page report. Project leader Brian Haapala says while the admittance rate at North Adams Regional was higher than the national average, 75 percent were for non-emergent reasons.

“Much of the use has been what you might say inappropriate,” Haapala said. “It’s been a source of care for folks who cannot get into the primary care physicians and they still need some help. It’s been a source of care for folks that don’t have anywhere else to go.”

With that in mind and adding in that the report found the region is at least six physicians short, Stroudwater recommends recruiting more primary care doctors, increasing outpatient services, and opening a walk-in/urgent care center. Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz says the recommendations are a template for a sustainable healthcare system, which the state will look to support.

“Areas where we’re looking at opportunities for funding whether it be around additional substance abuse support, additional support for behavioral health services, we already do a tremendous amount of support for prenatal and the WIC program and support for the disability populations,” Polanowicz said. “So I’ve asked my agencies, 15 of them, to take a look if there’s any other opportunities for us to identify support for Northern Berkshire County.”

Stroudwater’s Haapala pointed out 80 percent of what determines a person’s health status is linked to behaviors and socio-economic factors. Just 20 percent is correlated to direct medical treatment. Northern Berkshire Community Coalition executive director Al Bashevkin says healthy eating and living programs need to be considered as part of the solution.

“We also need resources to keep our people in our community healthy and I think we overlook that,” said Bashevkin.

During the meeting, Mike Wilber urged the state to support the hospital, whose bankrupt operator Northern Berkshire Healthcare employed 530 people.

“The state found $26 million for a grant for MASS MoCA,” Wilber said. “That’s great. I think it’s wonderful. But in the end, with that $26 million, you may get 10 jobs, if you’re lucky.”

BHS has hired about 150 of those former employees. The report found providing inpatient and surgical care for an average of 15 patients a day at the so-called BMC North would cost at least $2 million more per year than the current model, not including heating, lighting and other costs. BHS Vice President John Rogers says critical access designation is the linchpin for opening a limited inpatient facility.

“This is not a final decision, but our general view is that there are other areas of healthcare service, wellness, disease and prevention that we could invest that amount of money in for a much better impact on the healthcare needs of this region and Berkshire County in general, than taking that same $2 million and investing it in a free-standing center,” said Rogers.

BHS did attain critical access status for Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington about 10 years ago. Rogers adds the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has tightened up its licensing since then. He says the company is reviewing the report and hopes to have a plan for a number of services in the next two months, including whether to seek critical access status. Polanowicz added he didn’t know if it would be easier or harder to get the critical access status under BHS, considering NARH’s application in 2011 failed.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant 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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