NORTH ADAMS -- The state has retained a Portland, Maine, consulting firm to study Berkshire County's health care needs with a focus on what medical services are needed and sustainable in Northern Berkshire County.

Stroudwater Associates specializes in health care assessments. Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, associate commissioner of the Department of Health, said the firm is uniquely suited to conduct the study.

Stroudwater Associates could get its work under way Thursday. The process could take up to eight weeks.

"Stroudwater is very highly regarded," Biondolillo said. "They do this kind of work around the country, and they are very familiar with Berkshire County."

The study, she said, will be an "evidence-based process" that includes interviews, analysis of health insurance records, and the exploration of health care delivery models.

Gov. Deval Patrick promised an independent study of the region's health care situation shortly after North Adams Regional Hospital closed abruptly on March 28. Berkshire Medical Center has since stepped in with a plan to re-open an emergency department at the former hospital and has a bid to buy the facility.

Biondolillo said the closing of North Adams Regional came as a shock to the community, but North Adams is not the only community to have lost a hospital.

"The closing of NARH was obviously very painful in many ways," she said. "It is a real challenge for the region. But more than half the rural hospitals in the U.S. have experienced losses and many are closing. So what has to happen is to take a step back and do a sensible analysis."

The study seeks to conclude what opportunities exist for sustainable medical services and what services will be a challenge to fund operationally. No one wants to open a hospital just to have it close down again.

Biondolillo said she is aware of the demographic challenges in Northern Berkshire County and in North Adams, including the aging population and the lower income brackets.

"While it is more expensive to treat a population with a higher need, there are a lot of creative solutions that wind up being better for people," she added. "And while this was a very, very painful process, at the same time it creates an opportunity to really get it right."

Brian Haapala, a Stroudwater Associates director, said the firm examines a wide variety of data and conducts a number of community meetings.

"There are a number of methodologies looking at population and databases -- from hospital in-patient data to how much health care is received in a community and where they receive that care," Haapala said. "The presence of a local hospital doesn't necessarily mean people are going to utilize it."

Haapala said the firm will source proprietary data, including aggregated health insurance payment information, to look at specific services and project how many people need different types of medical services, including out-patient and emergency services.

"It is important to look forward to see how much health care will be needed as time passes," Haapala said. "And there are various scenarios to utilize a medical facility for health care."

The process also will include community meetings and interviews with regional and state officials.

"There are multiple stakeholders that need to be engaged," Haapala said.

In the end, what medical services are needed will be balanced with what medical services are sustainable and what services "absolutely need" to be provided.

"Stroudwater is well equipped to figure out the best mechanism to deliver those services," Biondolillo said. "They are very sensitive to all these issues."

Once the study is complete, discussions will begin on implementation.

"I think the most important thing is to make sure the people who need health care can get quality care in an appropriate way," Biondolillo said. "But we have to explore every option. It is never optimal to have preconceived notions."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
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On Twitter: @BE_SStafford