Court hearings to determine NARH emergency service restoration


NORTH ADAMS -- Efforts to establish emergency services in Northern Berkshire will take center stage in court proceedings this week.

And while many questions remain about how, when and where such a facility would set up, several parties involved in the negotiations said they are working to restore emergency care in Northern Berkshire as quickly as possible.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, reiterated on Friday that setting up an emergency department in North Adams is his "top priority" moving forward.

Hearings scheduled for Tuesday in Superior Court in Northampton and Wednesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield could help resolve some of the issues surrounding the status of the Northern Berkshire Healthcare's debt and Berkshire Medical Center's efforts to open a satellite center.

The hospital closed on March 28, after three days' notice, leaving more than 500 employees out of work and no emergency care in Northern Berkshire.

The state Attorney General's Office was granted a temporary restraining order in Berkshire Superior Court to prevent the ER from closing until BMC could take over the operation as a satellite center. But the ER was closed the next day when it became clear that NBH, the hospital's parent company, could not afford to keep it running in the interim.

NBH has since filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. It will be the bankruptcy trustee's duty to liquidate or otherwise dispose of all of NBH assets to recover as much of the money owed to the bond holders as possible.

On Tuesday, the attorney general's office will be back in Superior Court to continue the hearing on the temporary restraining order. The hearing will be in Hampshire Superior Court, where Berkshire Superior Court judge John A. Agostini is presiding this week.

Attorneys representing NBH, BMC, bondholders, and the Attorney General's office will meet at a status conference to discuss the order. On Wednesday, the parties are scheduled to meet at a U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield.

Though he declined to say whether or not the office would seek to extend the order, a representative of Attorney General Martha Coakley said he was confident that the proceedings will eventually result in emergency health care for North County.

"It appears that all parties, including the bankruptcy court, share our focus on re-establishing emergency services in North Adams," said Brad Puffer, a spokesman for the AG's office. "Our office continues to work with all stakeholders to expedite this process."

It's unclear what the outcome of Tuesday's hearing may be; a BMC attorney had argued on April 3 that the restraining order was necessary to preserve access to the hospital for 110 BMC employees to set up a satellite emergency facility. But during a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on April 7, BMC Attorney Joseph Baldiga said the hospital is considering alternative facilities to NARH. He said the cost of maintaining the entire NARH facility could be "prohibitive."

During a community meeting the next day, North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright criticized bondholders for trying to force BMC to pay for use of the entire hospital, even though the emergency department would only use the first floor.

Attorney Harold Murphy, a court-appointed trustee who will oversee the bankruptcy process, has not returned calls seeking comment.

An attorney for Wells Fargo, J. Mark Fisher, also did not return a phone call, but said during the bankruptcy hearing that the bondholder aimed to be "constructive" in returning emergency services to NARH.

No matter what the location, BMC must be licensed to get an satellite emergency facility up and running. The license, which would be specific to the NARH site, has been approved on the state level, according to Downing.

But BMC still needs federal approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Downing said.

"We do not know the timeline for receiving approval from CMS, but we know the agency is also expediting its review," said Michael Leary, a spokesperson for Berkshire Health Systems, the parent company of BMC.

To reach Adam Shanks:
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