PITTSFIELD -- Two of Berkshire County's leading health care providers are partnering to open a $30 million, state-of-the-art cancer care center at Berkshire Medical Center's Hillcrest Campus on Tor Court.
Berkshire Health Systems, the county's largest employer, and Berkshire Hematology/Oncology, the region's largest private medical practice, expect to break ground in the fall on the four-story, 49,893-square-foot facility and have it fully operational within three years. The project is being funded entirely by Berkshire Health Systems.
The BMC Cancer Center will be "the structural expression of a philosophy of care," said Dr. Gray Ellrodt, the director of medicine at Berkshire Health Systems. "This allows you to take care of patients the way you really should be doing it."
The BMC Cancer Center is expected to compete with other comprehensive cancer care facilities in Springfield, Boston and Albany, N.Y.
Berkshire Hematology/Oncology's physicians -- Michael DeLeo, Harvey Zimbler and Paul Rosenthal -- will join BMC's Physician Practice organization. Next year, Dr. Trevor Bayliss, a fellowship trained hematologic oncologist and native of Williamstown, will join the staff.
Berkshire County has up to 700 new cancer cases each year, a number that is only expected to go up in line with increases in life expectancy.
The BMC Cancer Center will provide cancer patients the full range of services in one facility: hematology/oncology, radiation oncology, surgical oncology, consultation and numerous support services. The goal is to improve the care of patients in need of diagnosis, treatment and follow-up support and services by combining all these disciplines in one place. Presently, local cancer patients travel to different locations to connect with their various treatments or to meet with doctors.
The new center will also be constructed to offer more private, spacious areas for patients. For instance, chemotherapy rooms will be larger and have scenic views outside. The facility will also incorporate a wellness center for patients to create fully rounded approach to cancer patient care.
"It is the kind of care that you would get if you went to any comprehensive center," said David Phelps, president and CEO of Berkshire Health Systems. "When everybody's under one roof, it's a lot easier for the patient to navigate their experiences."
Zimbler called the cancer center a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"This is about having the potential for radiation oncology and medical oncology to be situated in the same location, and for patients to be able to access the subspecialties of oncology without having to travel, and without having to do anything other than centralize their care at one large, highly skilled, very specialized cancer center," said Zimbler.
Cancer patient care has become team-oriented, Ellrodt said, and those efforts need to be fully coordinated, especially when the issues become more complex.
"There's very little care that's more complex than cancer care," Ellrodt said. "The number of types of different physicians you need to bring under one roof, the number of kinds of services you need under one roof, are absolutely staggering in terms of the complexity.
"We are already very good at cancer care," Ellrodt said, citing a study that ranked BHS fourth in the state in the treatment of that disease. "But if you look at what you're going to need to be really good at cancer care, you really need to bring these teams together under one roof."
The facility may also serve as a recruiting tool for medical personnel.
"For us in the long run to recruit young physicians out of prestigious programs, you have to have the facilities to recruit them," Phelps said. "People who can go anywhere don't go some place that doesn't have something to offer that's competitive."
Ultimately, Berkshire Health Systems will integrate Berkshire Hematology/Oncology into the company. All 54 of Berkshire Hematology's employees will be retained and become Berkshire Health Systems employees. As many as five new employees will be hired.
"This is the melding of two very strong partners," Zimbler said. "In this current health care world, having a strong financial partner in Berkshire Health Systems is allowing us to always be advocating for our patients and their health care, and we're fortunate that BHS provides that for us."
Berkshire Health Systems also will assume ownership of Berkshire Hematology's facility on Conte Drive in Pittsfield. Berkshire Hematology's two offices in Great Barrington and North Adams will remain open as satellite clinics of the BMC Cancer Center.
Of the BMC Cancer Center's total $30 million price tag, $20.1 million is slated for renovations to the existing buildings and a new entryway and lobby.
The remaining $10 million will go toward the purchase of new equipment and electronic record systems.
Construction will take place in three phases, with the first phase expected to begin this fall. The entire facility is expected to be completed by either 2014 or 2015, said Berkshire Health Systems CFO Darlene Rodowicz.
Phelps said Berkshire Health Systems and Berkshire Hematology/Oncology have been working on creating a comprehensive cancer facility for about a year.
"We all wanted to go to the same place," he said. "The discussion was on how we wanted to get there."
Phelps also said it's likely the BMC Cancer Center will forge a partnership with an academic medical institution within the next six to 12 months.