NARH closing to have multimilion-dollar impact, ripple effect on North County
NORTH ADAMS -- North County officials were sent reeling Tuesday by the news Northern Berkshire Healthcare will cease operations on Friday and deal an abrupt blow to the local economy with the loss of 530 full- and part-time jobs -- the worst since Sprague Electric Co. closed in 1985 and left 581 without work.
Mayor Richard Alcombright called Tuesday "a very difficult day in the city."
"The fallout from the jobs lost has to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars," he said, "and equally important is all of a sudden slamming the window on medical services in Northern Berkshire."
Stephen Sheppard, an economics professor at Williams College, estimated on Tuesday that the loss of North Adams Regional Hospital would "impose a hit on the Northern Berkshire economy of $96.4 million annually, and result in the loss of another 230 jobs in other areas."
"It was not a surprise, but more of a shock," Alcombright said, referring to debt problems that have long plagued North Adams Regional Hospital and its parent company. "I can't imagine the people who've worked at the hospital for 10, 20, 30 years and never thought their hospital would close."
But Alcombright added that "it's still very early." He believes more information on health care options or assistance from the state or other sources will emerge over the next several days.
"I think BMC [Berkshire Medical Center] will have to be in the picture on some level," Alcombright said, adding that a communitywide meeting might be required.
The mayor said he spoke by telephone Tuesday with Gov. Deval Patrick.
Alcombright said the governor "will start seeing what he can do and what can be done to move something along."
Patrick could not be reached Tuesday night for further comment.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and Rep. Gailanne Cariddi have been working for some time to assist Northern Berkshire Healthcare and are continuing those efforts, Alcombright said.
"Northern Berkshire needs a hospital for health reasons and for economic reasons, and I'm not ready to give up on this yet," Downing said Tuesday. "Nobody I know has ever been through this, so we're still trying to better understand it all."
"I am very concerned for the patients and their families," Cariddi said, "but I know people are still working, at the state level and locally. Nobody wants to see this happen. ... I know there are meetings going on to bring this to a more successful conclusion."
Former city Mayor John Barrett III, who also later served as director of BerkshireWorks, said he is reminded of the announcement in 1984 that Sprague Electric Co. would cease operations in North Adams.
"But it's worse," he said, in that the community and the state had more time then to plan a response.
"I think somebody has got to move swiftly," Barrett said. "It could be catastrophic; that's why the governor has to come in immediately."
Barrett praised the quick response to the Sprague closure from then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
"It is very disappointing," said City Council President Lisa Blackmer. "I know they had been working on this at the state level. It has a lot to do with the federal [health care] reimbursements."
The issues that sent NBHS into debt "have to be addressed at the federal level," Blackmer said, "or we could lose all of our community hospitals."
"Needless to say, like everyone, I am very concerned about this," said Charles "Chip" Joffe-Halpern, executive director of Ecu-Health Care. "The primary concern is for the patients and that they receive care."
He stressed that Ecu-Health Care, which assists people in acquiring affordable health care, will not be closing but will have to find new office space and move from one of the office buildings at the hospital. The move will happen by early April, he said.
Jonathan Butler, the town administrator in Adams, said the announcement "was very discouraging news. In my mind, it is a huge negative, first and foremost from a safety perspective."
While Adams is closer to Berkshire Medical Center than some North County communities, those in the North Adams area could face up to 45 minutes of travel time to the Pittsfield hospital, including for emergency care.
"It is a significant concern. I hope there is an opportunity for something [positive] to come forth in the next few days," he said.
Al Bashevkin, executive director of Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, said the impact, especially on those with low incomes, could be far-reaching.
"I think the biggest question, if the services do leave North Adams, is how do people get there?" he said.
That could be especially problematic for the home care services provided by the nurses association, he said.
Bashevkin said he is, however, "a pretty optimistic person, and I think that maybe something could happen. I hope for the best."
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