The closing of North Adams Regional Hospital and related medical services announced Tuesday is devastating for Northern Berkshire County and has ramifications for the Berkshires as a whole that cannot be fully predicted. While it was common knowledge that the hospital was struggling financially, and had been for years, the Board of Trustees of the parent company, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, must explain in considerable detail why it suddenly became necessary to close the hospital by the end of the week.
A statement released by the trustees yesterday said that the hospital's closing was "in response to NBH's worsening financial status" without explaining the specifics of the financial status. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association told The Eagle that the nurses at NARH are committed to at least assuring a "safe transition" if the hospital cannot be kept open.
Closing a hospital on such short notice means first and foremost that beds must be found quickly for patients who must then be transferred safely. This will surely place an immediate burden on Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. Also closing Friday are the Northern Berkshire Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice of Nor thern Berkshire and the three practices within the Northern Berkshire Healthcare Physicians Group, meaning that hundreds more people must scramble for health care in a tight market. North County residents will have to seek emergency care in Pittsfield or Bennington, Vermont, ensuring long trips during which serious medical conditions could worsen.
As an employer of more than 100, Northern Berkshire Healthcare would appear to be required by state and/or federal law to give 60 days notice before closing the hospital and related practices. The Berkshire legislative delegation and Governor Deval Patrick should immediately explore the reasons for and the legality of the sudden closing, one that has left North Adams in a state of shock.
The economic impact of the closing will be punishing as well, with 535 employees thrown out of work and into a stagnant county, state and regional job market. With these people collecting unemployment or leaving the area, there will be a trickle down effect on the entire county that will hurt businesses and perhaps lead to layoffs. Along with Berkshire Medical Center, medical practices in central and south Berkshire County will be receiving calls from Northern Berkshire patients looking for health care, and many of these practices are already overburdened.
NARH's plight, one that is shared by small community hospitals across the nation, exposes all of the weaknesses in our profit-based health care system. They are expected to cut their prices for medical services at the same time they are squeezed on government funding. Hos pitals like NARH that are in low-income areas are hugely dependent on Medicaid funding, which an increasingly mean-spirited Congress is determined to reduce. NARH has cut departments in recent years and made other cost-saving measures in a bid to stay solvent.
North Adams Regional Hospital opened in 1885, which means it may have treated Civil War veterans, and it has been the economic and health care backbone of North Adams and surrounding towns since then. Its loss is immeasurable, and the reason why that loss must be felt beginning Friday is questionable. A closing made in haste is sure to make every aspect of that closing more painful and answers as to the nature of the rapid closing must be forthcoming.