The three mayoral candidates in North Adams met for a healthcare-focused forum last night, one week before the race’s primary.
The forum was hosted by the North County Cares Coalition, which formed after North Adams Regional Hospital closed in March 2014 on three days’ notice. The group has consistently called for the return of a full service hospital and its questions echoed that sentiment. Incumbent Mayor Richard Alcombright says he’d like to see what was in North Adams restored, but most importantly he wants sustainable health services.
“I’m not an anti-hospital guy,” Alcombright said. “I’m just saying that we have to think about we have. I think we have more than what we had before, it just looks different.”
Berkshire Health Systems bought the North Adams campus for $4 million where it’s opened an emergency department and a number of outpatient services, but no inpatient beds. Artist and real estate developer Eric Rudd says if he becomes mayor, he will be adamant about restoring a full service hospital.
“Somebody is going to die trying to get to the hospital 40-odd minutes away in the middle of night, maybe in the middle of the winter, and that’s not acceptable for any community in the United States,” Rudd said. “That’s it. There’s no more argument about it. The only question is how forceful are we going to be to make it happen.”
BHS has said inpatient services hinge on a critical access designation from the federal government. As of early September, BHS had no plans to apply for that status.
John Barrett is running for the seat he held from 1984 to 2009, when Alcombright beat him. Barrett says he thinks a full service hospital should be in North Adams and referenced his administration’s advocacy for the creation of MASS MoCA.
“I believe very, very strongly that you need a strong voice,” Barrett said. “I believe that I can take that to Washington and get that done. You know what, it’s no tougher than convincing three governors to give us $35 million for a museum of contemporary art.”
If BHS does not pursue a full service hospital, Rudd believes the company’s North Adams site would lose its nonprofit charitable status.
“I’ll send them a half a million dollar tax bill,” Rudd said. “That’s going to get their attention fast. We are going to push hard. We are going to really mobilize this group. I have unfortunately not heard one aggressive, advocating statement from the mayor that we need a full service hospital. I don’t want our mayor to be a spokesperson for BHS. I want our mayor to be a spokesperson for this community.”
Rudd says the city shouldn’t settle for the crumbs BHS is giving it. Barrett believes the hospital closure was not handled properly, saying he was able to keep Sprague Electric in town eight years after some of its facilities closed. He says he would have taken state and federal officials to task.
“It would have never closed down the way it did,” Barrett said. “It left this region in a peril. To say you were shocked…I wasn’t shocked from what I was hearing. The way that it happened was unacceptable and I think that it hurt in a lot of ways at a time that North Adams and the people working there didn’t need it.”
Regarding the criticism of his actions during and after the closure, Alcombright said he had two “armchair quarterbacks” sitting next to him.
“A lot of times I’m accused of being soft,” Alcombright said. “I don’t want people to confuse ‘soft’ with ‘quiet.’ I think I was a very loud voice. I think I was a very heard voice and we brought a lot of action to this thing.”
The candidates veered somewhat away from healthcare during their closing statements with Alcombright calling for a war on drug addiction.
“Everyone says we need beds,” Alcombright said. “In my opinion, addiction treatment beds are much more needed than observation beds.”
Barrett says he envisions more for the hospital campus.
“I see an assisted living center there so that we can do something about our middle-income people who can’t afford to go to that place in Williamstown or Lenox,” Barrett said. “They need an assisted living center in this community, what a perfect place for it. We can see that drug rehabilitation center located up there. Bringing back parts of the Greylock Pavilion. That’s how we grow our economy. That’s how we make our hospital stronger.”
Rudd says the city needs a change from the two men who have led North Adams since 1984.
“Like you, I’ve had enough of higher taxes and fees for lower services and property values,” said Rudd.
A preliminary election Sept. 22nd will decide which two candidates will face off in November’s general election for a two-year term.