On March 25, Northern Berkshire Healthcare announced that it would close North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) that Friday, giving employees, patients, the North Adams community and the College a mere three days to prepare for an enormous change in the regional healthcare landscape.
The shuttering of NARH eliminated 530 jobs, and will result in a yearly loss of $96.4 million in the Northern Berkshire economy, according to economics professor Stephen Sheppard. All patients at NARH were transported to Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) in Pittsfield, which will now handle emergency care along with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC) in Bennington, VT.
Officials from President Adam Falk to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick expressed their dismay at the sudden announcement and the speed of the closure. In response Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley ’75 filed an injunction to halt the closing of NARH’s emergency services, arguing that Northern Berkshire Healthcare had to give 90-days notice of closing as per Massachusetts law. More than two weeks later, the hospital remains cordoned off by police tape and the emergency room devoid of patients.
When it was discovered that Northern Berkshire Healthcare simply did not have enough cash on hand to support NARH’s emergency services in a safe and adequate manner, Coakley’s office was forced to revise its injunction to allow NARH’s emergency services to close pending a resolution in which BMC would take over emergency services in the Northern Berkshire area.
While the battle to save NARH played out in the courts and the Northern Berkshires community grappled with confusion and heartbreak in the wake of the closing that they hoped would be staved off at the last moment, the College scrambled to ensure students’ access to healthcare would not be interrupted. According to Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, the College has been “in close communications with both medical centers…as well as with Village Ambulance and physicians at a couple of different medical groups,” to ensure that students with both emergency and non-emergency medical concerns will be able to receive the care they need. In non-emergency situations on weekdays, students can take advantage of a Campus Safety and Security shuttle service that will take them to and from BMC. On evenings and weekends, the College has established a relationship with Bennington Taxi to provide transportation to SVMC free of charge.
In an emergency situation, Klass said, “Before and after the NARH closure, it’s all the same”; students who dial 911 will be transported to the BMC or SVMC emergency room, with Klass “strongly encouraging” the use of the latter, according to an email sent to the student body on Apr. 5. NARH is 5.7 miles from the College; SVMC and BMC are 13.4 miles and 19.4 miles, respectively.
“The good news is that these are both excellent medical centers with highly regarded and credentialed practitioners and services,” said Klass. “They also both provide more specialists and more high-tech support infrastructure than we had access to before, so we believe that our students are very much in good hands when they require this kind of emergency healthcare.”
Plans to open a new emergency room in North Adams operated by BMC have hit a number of snags. Though the initial proposal for BMC to open a satellite emergency room in the NARH facility drew support from Attorney General Coakley and Governor Deval, Northern Berkshire Healthcare filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Apr. 3. Under Chapter 7, the medical group’s assets will be liquidated and it is becoming more likely that the physical NARH facility will be included in that sale. According to an attorney representing BMC, the NARH facility “may be greater than what they need”, so the BMC has been considering facilities other than NARH for a possible emergency room location.
“I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind students to follow the protocol of contacting the on-call physician (413-597-4567) after hours if a student is ill but not having a health emergency. This service is provided by Williamstown Medical Associates and the on-call physician will provide expert consultation that, in some cases, may help the student avoid a trip to the emergency room,” Klass said.
In a positive development, BMC has hired nearly 150 former NARH employees to help handle the increased volume of patients and the new ER venture. In a special to the Eagle, President Falk said, “Community is never more important than in times of transition … the closing affects us all.” As the hospital closing is a human tragedy, so will human fortitude ultimately prevail, hopes Falk: “Knowing, as I do, the talent, the spirit and the resilience of Northern Berkshire, I have no doubt that we can together devise the best possible health care system for our community.”