NORTH ADAMS — I began teaching at North Adams State College in 1978 and became a regular reader of The Berkshire Eagle. Five years earlier the paper had won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing and over the years had been called "the New York Times" of small daily newspapers. With a progressive reputation, and broad coverage of all of the Berkshires, one could count on the paper to be an advocate for the needs of county residents.
With that in mind, I had to read and re-read the Sept. 16 Eagle editorial on the struggle for a full-service hospital in North Adams. It seemed so harsh. The basic takeaway from the editorial: Forget about it, North Adams. Get real. You're not getting a full-service hospital, so quit whining. No reasons were given, no facts laid out, and, just as important: there was no advocacy for the 37,000 people who depend on that hospital for their medical needs.
If the Eagle writer had thought facts were important, the editorial could have included the following:
As a hospital, North Adams Regional Hospital made money every year between 2000 and 2012. In 2012, state records show that NARH earned more than $5 million in profit. NARH's parent, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, decided to go into the real estate business and bought two big properties in Williamstown. It lost big on that, and ended up with a debt of nearly $65 million, which led to the bankruptcy and precipitous closing of NARH in March, 2014.
It's important to remember that the hospital was doing fine, but the careless empire-building of Northern Berkshire Healthcare brought down the hospital that local residents sorely needed. Stroudwater Associates, the firm contracted by the state to evaluate the Northern Berkshire health care market, concluded that there was "an existing need for 18-21 beds for acute inpatient medical services and 11-12 beds for inpatient behavioral health and substance abuse services."
Berkshire Health Systems (BHS), the parent of Berkshire Medical Center, bought the NARH campus in bankruptcy, renamed it BMC-North, opened an emergency room and has instituted a number of out-patient services, but has refused to provide the beds to make it a full-service hospital. Yet, BHS also operates Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, serving South County, and it's a full-service hospital serving a smaller community than North County. And with all of those services, Fairview managed to make a profit of $3.9 million in fiscal 2014 and $2.7 million in the first nine months of this fiscal year.
Last year Berkshire Health Systems made $42.7 million in profit, even as CEO David Phelps has claimed financial pressures mean inpatient beds are not a viable option in North Adams. I don't know why the Eagle editorial ignored these facts. Had they considered them, the Eagle might have come to a different conclusion and become an advocate for a full-service hospital in North Adams.
Residents in Northern Berkshire need those beds. Many are elderly, and suffer from higher-than-average rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, opioid addiction and other health problems. Many have low incomes, and are ill-equipped to deal with the high cost of transporting themselves to and from Pittsfield, especially in the winter.
And while the median age of the Northern Berkshire population is relatively high, younger residents are having babies — more births than in South County — and must make the long, difficult trip to BMC.
Twice in the Eagle editorial "realities in the health care" industry are given as the reasons why there shouldn't be a full-service hospital in North County. Unfortunately, the editorial writer never says what those "realities" are. I imagine the reference is to money, that BHS might lose some cash if BMC-North became full-service.
As a worst-case scenario, let us suppose that adding 20 beds to BMC-North cost BHS a million or two the first year. Would that be so bad, considering that would mean a loss of less than five percent in its profits? Is the bottom line the only line that counts?
I suspect in the days that The Eagle won its Pulitzer Prize its editorial writers had a much wider perspective.