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.
Local physician Harvey Zimbler called it a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO David Phelps and Berkshire Hematology/Oncology officials unveiled the project publicly late Wednesday afternoon at the Colonial Theatre.
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, Zimbler and Paul Rosenthal -- will join BMC's Physician Practice organization. Next year, Dr.
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 also will be constructed to offer more private, spacious areas for patients. For instance, chemotherapy rooms will be larger and have scenic views outside. The facility also will 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 Phelps. "When everybody's under one roof, it's a lot easier for the patient to navigate their experiences."
"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 someplace 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 Hema tology'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.
Berkshire Medical Center acquired its Hillcrest Campus, the former Hillcrest Hospital, in 1996. The campus is home to a variety of hospital services and programs.
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The BMC Cancer Center
The full extent of renovation and new construction will include:
- New entrance and lobby: The existing entrance to what is now the Hillcrest Family Health Center will be replaced with a new entry into the building. A new lobby will serve as the gateway to the treatment facility.
- Wellness center: This will include a patient library, conference room and classroom, additional complementary services and support for patients and their families.
- Radiation oncology and multidisciplinary clinic: Off the lobby, a 4,750-square-foot wing will be renovated to accommodate the radiation oncology physician practice, along with additional examination and office space for other specialists to see patients.
- Hematology/oncology physician practice: The third floor of the four-floor patient tower will be renovated to accommodate a six-physician hematology/ oncology practice. The 9,800-square-foot area will include 18 patient exam rooms, 10 office areas, a conference room and the necessary support areas, and a waiting area with views of nearby Onota Lake.
- Laboratory: The center will have a full clinical laboratory on site that will be available to provide rapid laboratory test results.
- Pharmacy: The center will have a dedicated, on-site pharmacy, providing rapid access to pharmaceuticals for patients.
- Infusion and treatment service: The fourth floor will feature 30 infusion stations. This area will be equipped to meet patients who require general infusion, chemotherapy and other important treatment services. The area is designed to maximize views of Onota and the surrounding mountains for a comforting environment for patients.
- Radiation therapy: The ground level will feature BMC's radiation therapy program, currently located at the main hospital on North Street. The new center will include state-of-the-art radiation oncology equipment for cancer treatment, such as a linear accelerator, tomotherapy, CT scanner and all necessary support services.