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One Year After The Shock: Services Return Following Hospital Closure

Lucas Willard

It’s been one year since the abrupt closing of North Adams Regional Hospital shocked the region.“For a couple of months it was a like a death in the family because it was all family,” said North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright. “The people that worked up there are your neighbors, your friends.”

Alcombright says a phone call he received on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 25, 2014 delivered a punch in the gut. The news was that the financially-strapped North Adams Regional Hospital would close that Friday at 5 p.m. Days later, parent company and top regional employer Northern Berkshire Healthcare would file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, closing physician and other healthcare services and putting some 500 people out of work.

“At the end of the day if we didn’t nobody would,” said Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO David Phelps.

Via a court order, the Pittsfield-based company reopened the North Adams emergency room for the 37,000 patient pool the facility served. In September, BHS finalized its purchase of the North Adams campus for $4 million. It was the only bid. Since then BHS has invested more than $6 million into the campus, upgrading the facilities and offering screenings and outpatient surgeries along with other services. But no inpatient services.

The restoration of a full service hospital has been a rallying cry for the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a group that has met weekly since the closure called the North County Cares Coalition. Dick Dassatti is a coalition member.

“People need to have medical facilities within their community,” Dassatti said. “What we’re asking for here in North Berkshire is equal access to healthcare just like they have in central and south Berkshire.”

A state-commissioned report found an inpatient facility was feasible in Northern Berkshire only if it receives federal critical access designation which allows for increased reimbursement rates. It’s a status enjoyed by BHS’ Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. North Adams Regional’s application was denied in 2011.

BHS’ Phelps says there is no reason to think the federal government would grant that status, but adds the company may apply. With an average of eight people utilizing inpatient services before the hospital closed, he says the services aren’t feasible without the designation either, noting the region’s physician shortage and growing dependence on Medicare and Medicaid.

Instead Phelps says the focus in the short term is on providing preventive and outpatient services that people depend on every day.

“There’s one thing I’m very certain of,” Phelps said. “If you look at the campus of North Adams Regional Hospital a year and a half from now and you compare it to the vibrancy of that campus before the hospital closure, you will see much more healthcare delivered on that campus than then. It may not be in the form of inpatient services that people are accustomed to, but there’ll be much more necessary care delivered in the future than there was in the past.”

State Senator Ben Downing says he is cautiously optimistic about the direction of the region’s healthcare, adding that there is a strong case to be made for inpatient services.

“I think it is incumbent on BHS to open as many services as they can without some type of enhanced support,” Downing said. “Then make a strong application to CMS [Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services] for critical access designation. If that is turned down, and certainly it’s a high bar to cross, then we at the state level need to come up with a solution on our own.”

Downing and Mayor Alcombright say the last thing they want is for an inpatient facility to open and then have to close. Phelps says there were discussions about BHS stepping in to prevent the closure, but Northern Berkshire Healthcare’s heavy debt load could have jeopardized operations in the rest of the county.

“We want to help the most people we can as quickly as we can,” Phelps said. “The avenue to do that isn’t through a singular focus on an inpatient unit.”

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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