About 70 people traveled to Beacon Hill Tuesday advocating for the restoration of healthcare services in the Northern Berkshires.
“We are in the westernmost, northernmost remote part of the state and we need to be heard,” said Massachusetts Nurses Association associate director Jim Gander on the bus to Boston Tuesday.
Community members along with representatives of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East boarded two charter buses in North Adams Tuesday morning for the three-hour drive to Boston.
“We’ve got to have emergency department services open now,” Gander continued. “This is enough. We are going into our third week.”
Democratic State Representative Gailanne Cariddi of North Adams greeted the group as it arrived at the statehouse Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve never had so many people from the district here all at one time,” said Cariddi to the group as it gathered on the steps of the statehouse.
The group delivered petitions signed by 12,000 people requesting the reopening of North Adams Regional Hospital to the offices of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
“Open the emergency room initially, but we are looking for a full-service hospital again up in North Adams,” said former NBH employee Mike O’Brien as he delivered the petitions to Governor Patrick’s director of constituent services.
Many state officials were out of the office, attending ceremonies commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Nevertheless, Cariddi says those on Beacon Hill are hearing the concerns.
“The governor and the administration should know that the residents of North Berkshire and the First Berkshire District are concerned,” Cariddi said. “They want to see a favorable resolution and they want to see it as quickly, as orderly and as efficiently as possible.”
Among the travelers was Cindy Bird, who worked for Northern Berkshire Healthcare for 26 years. She is hopeful the group made some noise at the statehouse, but is disappointed Governor Patrick hasn’t been more visible on the issue.
“He needs to be working harder to get this fixed,” said Bird.
Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz says his team has been working essentially around the clock with the Attorney General’s office, Berkshire Health Systems and other involved parties.
“If this were to happen closer to Boston there wouldn’t be frankly as much of a response from the state because of all the other healthcare providers that are in the area and in the region,” Polanowicz said.
The state’s department of public health and the Drug Enforcement Administration have granted BMC licenses to operate a satellite emergency facility in the region under a temporary restraining order requested by the state attorney general’s office. With 20 years experience in healthcare, Polanowicz says he has never seen a hospital of this scale close three days after notice was given. He says he has been in constant contact with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to get a timeline on the final licenses needed.
“They normally would have between 45 and 90 days to review,” he said. “We’ve in affect asked them to kind of check it out over the weekend and approve it.”
Once CMS gives notice, Polanowicz’s team will conduct a top-down certification survey of the facility to ensure safety, which he says would take two to three days. He says BMC, which has hired 143 of the 530 former Northern Berkshire Healthcare employees, has estimated it would take seven to 10 days to open the facility after that. NBH filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy April 3 and a court-appointed trustee now oversees the company’s assets, including the NARH facility. In conversations with the trustee, Harry Murphy, Polanowicz says there’s an understanding to allow BMC to access the facility during the court proceedings.
“[The trustee] in affect had said that the full cost of the building would have to borne by Berkshire Health Systems even if Berkshire Health Systems was only using the emergency facility and the diagnostic imaging area,” Polanowicz said. “So that is one of the things that has to get resolved as soon as possible either through a use agreement or through a purchase of the building.”
Polanowicz says the state is offering whatever support BHS needs during the transition process and has brought on the healthcare consulting firm Stroudwater Associates to assist in determining what the facility will provide. He says if BHS were to choose a site other than NARH, the state and federal licensing processes would need to start over. Polanowicz says his office has been in touch with ambulance services in the Northern Berkshires about addressing the additional costs resulting from the longer drive times to BMC in Pittsfield and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington. He also says if an inpatient facility is established in the region, his office will be looking at securing critical access status, as is the case for Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.
“CMS is not right now in the mode of approving many new critical access hospitals, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” said Polanowicz.
The group continues to hold weekly meetings that draw more than a hundred people and plan to submit more petitions as well as plaster signs around the community with the message “Save Our Services.”