Photo Gallery: NARH staff members


NORTH ADAMS - North Adams Regional Hospital, the local visiting nurse and hospice group, and three medical practices - all owned by Northern Berkshire Healthcare - will close on Friday, leaving 530 full- and part-time employees without jobs and thousands of patients with few immediate health care answers.

Northern Berkshire Healthcare trustees approved the resolution "in response to NBH's worsening financial status," according to a prepared statement released by board Chairwoman Julia Bolton.

"Given our finances and the daunting challenges that small rural community hospitals are facing in this health care environment, we can no longer continue," the statement said.

Employees reacted emotionally to the news when they were told on Tuesday afternoon. State and local officials reacted angrily to the abrupt timing of the announcement and the closing, which represents the biggest blow to the Northern Berkshire region since Sprague Electric Co. closed and let go of 581 employees in 1985. A state agency said it would dispatch a team to help displaced employees on Wednesday.

"It's a very difficult day in the city," said North Adams Mayor Richard Alcom bright. "My heart just goes out to the people. We are now without a place to go for health care services. We are very concerned for those who need care."

The news was a "shock," but not a surprise because of the hospital's financial difficulties, Alcombright said.

The struggle for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, which operates the hospital, began in 2001. In the 12 subsequent fiscal years, it had posted losses in nine. By 2011, Northern Berkshire Health care was $49.8 million in debt. A year after emerging from Chapter 11 in 2012, officials had announced hope that its bottom line would improve, but it continued to shed employees and services.

"In the six years that I have been on the board, we have investigated every possible avenue and exhausted all options as we searched for a way to continue operating the hospital and its affiliates," Bolton said in the statement. "Board members, management, physicians, and employees have worked together with dedication and commitment to prevent this outcome."

The sentiment among many North Adams Regional employees was the prospect of a merger or an affiliation with a nearby hospital - not an outright closing. Last year, Northern Berkshire Health care said it was in strategic talks with Berkshire Health Systems, which operates Berk shire Medical Center in Pittsfield, but those apparently did not materialize in time.

A spokesman declined comment beyond its statement Tuesday that said the Berkshire Health Systems would extend itself to handle incoming patients and services.

In a memo from the board, workers were told that despite long-term efforts to reverse the trend, "In the end, as revenues declined precipitously, it was simply impossible to continue operations. We had hoped for a purchase by another party, but as our financial position quickly weakened it became clear we could not complete a sale."

In addition to North Adams Regional Hospital, the Northern Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire and three medical practices will close on Friday. The practices include Northern Berkshire Family Medicine, Northern Berkshire OB/GYN, and Northern Berk shire General Surgery, all in North Adams.

"The implications of this decision are far-reaching, but our primary concern is for our patients," said Timothy Jones, Northern Berkshire Health care's president and CEO, in a statement. "We are working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition to other care providers including other hospitals in the region."

The hospital's Emergency Department will close at 10 a.m. on Friday. Residents may seek emergency care at Berk shire Medical Center in Pitts field and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vt.

Patients of Northern Berk shire Family Medicine and the VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire will be transitioned to other practices and agencies through Friday, April 4.

The trustees' letter to employees noted that NBH filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning that once the filing is complete, the hospital properties, buildings and other assets "will be owned and controlled by the bankruptcy trustees."

"North Adams Regional Hospital opened 129 years ago in 1885, and as an institution we have served the people of this area with dedication and pride," Jones said. "Many of those who work here have served our patients for decades, and today's news is a shock. We wish it could be different."

David Schildmeier, a spokes man for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said there is some question whether the company had followed state regulations regarding the closing of hospitals.

"The board of trustees might want to walk away, but the nurses who care for the patients don't and we're committed to do whatever we can to save the hospital or at least ensure a safe transition," he said.

Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Health on Tuesday declined to comment on the closing.

State Sen. Benjamin Down ing said he and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi are seeking options to avoid the closure or to provide replacement services.

"This certainly is a gut punch," Downing said. "Northern Berkshire needs a hospital for health reasons and for economic reasons, and I'm not ready to give up on this yet."

He said the speed at which the hospital is closing is surprising.

"It could have and should have been avoided," he said.

In a statement, Lynn Nicholas, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, called Tuesday's news "a distressing development" and a "concrete illustration of how the health care landscape is changing under reform."

Nicholas continued, "Changes are taking place both in how care is paid for, and also how care is delivered. Not all hospitals will continue to operate as they used to. Possible solutions for this could include redefining what a hospital is to maintain basic services for a community, or cross-subsidization within a larger health system."

Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents roughly 200 NARH workers, called the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital "unacceptable" and called on state officials to intervene to maintain services.

"Unfortunately, this crisis in North Adams is indicative of significant problems and disparities within the broader Massachusetts health care financing system," Turner said. "Community hospitals in Massachusetts are in crisis largely as a result of low Medicaid rates and the disproportionately higher commercial payments made to higher-cost hospitals. This is a matter of life and death for many in the impacted communities who could lose access to emergency hospital services. A solution simply must be found."

A copy of the news release is as follows.

(NORTH ADAMS, MA) The Board of Trustees of Northern Berkshire Healthcare has approved a resolution to close North Adams Regional Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, and three medical practices owned by NBH. The resolution was approved in response to NBH's worsening financial status.

"In the six years that I have been on the Board we have investigated every possible avenue and exhausted all options as we searched for a way to continue operating the hospital and its affiliates," said Board chair Julia Bolton. "Board members, management, physicians, and employees have worked together with dedication and commitment to prevent this outcome. But now, given our finances and the daunting challenges that small rural community hospitals are facing in this healthcare environment, we can no longer continue."

NARH, the VNA & Hospice, and Northern Berkshire Healthcare Physicians Group will cease operations on Friday, March 28. Employees will receive layoff notices and assistance in filing for unemployment benefits. NBH employs approximately 530 people in full- and part-time positions. Northern Berkshire Healthcare Physicians Group includes Northern Berkshire Family Medicine, Northern Berkshire OB/GYN, and Northern Berkshire General Surgery, all in North Adams.

"The implications of this decision are far-reaching but our primary concern is for our patients," said Timothy Jones, President and Chief Executive Officer of NBH. "We are working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition to other care providers including other hospitals in the region."

NARH's Emergency Department will close on Friday, March 28 at 10 a.m. NBH is working with area hospitals and ambulance services to ensure continuation of emergency services. Residents may seek emergency care at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, Vermont.

Patients of Northern Berkshire Family Medicine and the VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire will be transitioned to other practices and agencies through Friday, April 4.

"North Adams Regional Hospital opened 129 years ago in 1885, and as an institution we have served the people of this area with dedication and pride," Jones said. "Many of those who work here have served our patients for decades, and today's news is a shock. We wish it could be different."

Background on NBH:

NBH is the parent corporation of North Adams Regional Hospital, the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, and Northern Berkshire Physicians Group (which includes Northern Berkshire Family Medicine, Northern Berkshire OB/GYN, and Northern Berkshire General Surgery). NARH opened in 1885; the VNA & Hospice has roots in visiting nurse services that started in 1911. NBH has served a population of approximately 40,000 residents of northern Berkshire County and adjacent areas of southern Vermont and New York State.

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