NARH employees angry at management, worried for patients
NORTH ADAMS -- By 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the lobby and main entrance to North Adams Regional Hospital were strangely quiet.
There were no sounds of ambulances arriving. No chatter of staff or bustle of patients. Just people walking in and out somberly, alone or in pairs.
Two men were seen wheeling out carts of potted plants and medical books to the parking lot.
Women in the hospital gift shop were reducing merchandise to 75 percent off.
With few words and open arms, retired internist Dr. Erwin Steubner, embraced a couple of nurses standing by the reception desk, bringing tears to the eyes of Debbie Little, an LPN of the Same Day Surgery & Short Stay Unit. She was born in the very hospital she's been working in for the past 41 years in the city she grew up in.
Standing next to Little was another SSU nurse, Robbin Simonetti, of Clarksburg, who also choked up with emotion.
"I cry when I get angry," said Simonetti, who's been with NARH for 32 years.
Just hours earlier, it was announced to employees that North Adams Regional Hospital, the Northern Berkshire Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, and three other medical practices will close on Friday as of 10 a.m., leaving an estimated 530 full- and part-time employees without jobs.
"We're all just in shock," said Angie Lingner. Currently a registered nurse in the hospital's emergency room, the Pownal, Vt., resident has been with NARH for about 30 years.
She was among a small group of hospital nurses, all members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), who spoke with The Eagle on Tuesday in reaction to the Northern Berkshire Healthcare board's approval of a resolution to shut down the primary medical facilities of the city.
While concerned about the loss of their jobs, the nurses were more worried about the resolution's impact on their patients.
"This is a travesty to the community," Simonetti said. "We do not feel the hospital has followed the right procedure to close the hospital."
Jim Gander, associate director for the MNA's division of labor action, also was with the nurses at NARH on Tuesday afternoon. Representing the hospital's roughly 110 nurses, the health care union contends the hospital is legally required to give 90 days' notice of a closure, versus the three days hospital staff and patients were given to respond.
"They haven't given the community a chance to adjust and to make arrangements," Simonetti said.
The nurses said they were notified, shortly beforehand, of a mandatory staff meeting to begin at 2:45 p.m. in the hospital cafeteria. It was there, they said, that North Adams Regional Hospital President and CEO Tim Jones explained to the nursing staff that the hospital would cease operations at 10 a.m. Friday.
Doctors and other staff members were called into meetings shortly before the nurses' meeting, the nurses said.
All NARH and Northern Berkshire Healthcare staff also were emailed a letter and fact sheet from the hospital's board of trustees and executive team that explained the closure, which is being attributed to ongoing financial struggles.
"Everyone in the organization, along with our state and federal legislators, has been working to avoid this outcome," the letter states.
Clarksburg resident Karin Robert, an RN with the hospital for more than 30 years, acknowledged that staff has been aware of the hospital's declining fiscal health, but said staff members' dedication hasn't wavered.
"We just come here each day to do our job," she said.
Diane George, a longtime emergency room nurse from New Ashford, echoed those sentiments.
"We believe in helping those people we have known all our lives," she said. "We're like family here."
The nurses said that while hospital management has previously held informational forums to discuss impending budget cuts and reduce costs, the nurses said they weren't engaged in discussions to help save the hospital from closing, including through potential measures such as reduced pay for senior staff.
"If this was so bad, why weren't certain things cut?" Simonetti asked.
Although rumors spread of a possible purchase once NARH declares bankruptcy, the nurses say they were told by Jones "not to expect a miracle," according to George, and that such action "would have to come from the governor."
During Friday night's North Adams City Council meeting, Mayor Richard Alcombright did tell constituents that he had been in contact with Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, as early as Monday night, patients were shipped off to Berkshire Medical Center and other medical facilities, according to some staff members.
Some staff members have already been let go. Simonetti said this included her daughter and her daughter's colleagues in the hospital's medical records and coding department left work there for the last time on Tuesday evening. Several nurses and critical staff members will continue to work with patients through Friday morning, when the hospital closes.
Beginning Wednesday morning, members of a "crisis management" team -- the Rapid Response Team from the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development -- will be at the hospital to assist employees in enrollment for unemployment and health care benefits, and "career support services," the letter states. EOLWD spokeswoman Ann Dufresne said that the Rapid Response Team will be available to employees in North Adams through next Tuesday. The team also will partner with BerkshireWorks, a state Career Center based in Pittsfield.
Employee benefits, such as health and dental insurance, will expire on March 31, according to the letter.
The employees were not offered any severance pay, according to the nurses, but pension plans will be unaffected under NBH's plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Also in the executive memo, staff members are instructed to claim accrued vacation pay on Friday through the health care system's human resources department. Final paychecks will be handed out on April 3, and nurses say they've been instructed to cash them as quickly as possible.
"We wish the news could be different," the executive letter stated.