Community expresses outrage, demonstrations planned through Friday
The announcement that North Adams Regional Hospital will close Friday morning drew expressions of outrage, confusion and worry from community members.
By Wednesday evening, a petition to save the hospital had garnered more than 1,000 signatures, a Facebook group against the closure had garnered 4,000 likes, and organizers made a convoy to the hospital campus for an impromptu demonstration. Additional demonstrations were scheduled outside of the hospital on Thursday and Friday mornings at 9 a.m.
Employees with social service agencies expressed concern and worry, but said they are working together to support those impacted by the hospital closure.
"I can tell you that my phone has been abuzz," Al Bashevkin, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's executive director, said. "Everyone's asking, ‘What can we do? How can we help?' And at this point, there's no clear answers."
Bashevkin said he has heard concerns over where narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous meetings will be held.
"I'm hoping that this will all get sorted out in town. You just don't know," he said.
John Lutz, director of Elder Services of Berkshire County, said the organization's caseload has a "significant" North County population. Employees immediately began to evaluate those cases after hearing the announcement, he said.
Lutz said the organization also has been in contact with the offices of state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams.
Mark Rondeau, board president of Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative, said he expects use of the Friendship Center Food Pantry on Eagle Street to rise significantly.
"Going forward, our group will be looking for ways to support the provision of adequate medical services in Northern Berkshire, but I think we're all overwhelmed and shocked by this although that the hospital has been in financial trouble has been known for years," he said.
Susan Chenail, executive director of 70-unit Sweetwood senior living facility in Williamstown, said she has had conversations with the facility's managers on the impact to staff and residents. Staff members have expressed concern over the employment issue, saying the loss of 500 jobs will be a strain, she said.
Chenail said she hoped local doctor's offices can rebound quickly. "Most practices in this local area are full or nearly so," she said. "Any loss of physicians will be costly."
James Stakenas, vice president of administration and finance at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, said the college's immediate concerns are for the health of students, faculty and staff. The college has a health services office on campus that is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., he said, but still relies on the hospital for some services.
The college is in talks with the North Adams Ambulance Service and local taxi companies regarding medical transports.
"Even for simple things, like if you're on an athletic team and need to get an X-ray, you would need to go to Pittsfield for that," he said.
Alexandra Nichipor, who started a petition to stop the closing on petitions.whitehouse.gov, said she was furious when she heard the news. Nichipor, an eastern Massachusetts native who attends Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, graduated MCLA in 2012.
"Keeping this hospital open isn't just a political matter; it's a matter of justice and human rights," she said. "The people of North County should not be punished for the actions of a few administrators who don't know how to handle finances."
Nichipor said she hoped the Obama administration can direct the necessary resources toward keeping the hospital open, and added that she has been coordinating with other groups trying to get state representatives, senators and nurses' unions involved.
"There are emergency grants available for this kind of thing on a federal level, and this petition is the first step toward informing the government of our need," she said.
The "Save Northern Berkshire Healthcare Hospital" Facebook page drew many posts including contact information to elected officials and the state Department of Public Healthy. It had 4,513 "likes" 20 hours after it was created.
Following a community meeting at the American Legion Wednesday evening, organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, attendees trecked to the hospital's lobby for an impromptu demonstration. The group of sixty people were soon ordered off the premises by hospital security.
Mike Wilbur, of the April 4 Coalition, encouraged residents to attend an "Occupy North Adams Regional Hospital" demonstration set for Friday at 9 a.m. in front of the facility.
Wilbur said the closing had far-reaching impacts on safety. A person in critical accident locally could die before being taken to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield or Southern Vermont Hospital in Bennington, he said.
"Corporate leaders look at the medical facilities in the area," he added. "If they find out it's a 40-minute ride to the nearest help, they may not come here."
Joining the effort will be 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. A total of 200 employees at the hospital are in the union, according to a press release.
The union has launched a petition at stoptheclosure.org and is calling on state Attorney General Martha Coakley and Gov. Deval Patrick "to immediately intervene and protect the essential, cost-effective health services provided at NARH," the release states.
"[Union] analysts are investigating what has transpired behind the scenes with the NARH bonds and bond holder interests in an effort to shed more public light on the financial dealings that preceded the closure announcement," the release continues.
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