North Adams mayoral candidates debate NARH closure, future of health care

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NORTH ADAMS — The city's three mayoral candidates sparred Tuesday over how the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital was handled in 2014 and over the future of health care in the Northern Berkshires.

The exchange came during a candidate forum sponsored by the North County Cares Coalition, a local organization backed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association that advocates for the restoration of in-patient services in North Adams. Residents packed American Legion Post 125 to hear the candidates answer questions prepared by the organization and a few from the crowd.

Mayor Richard Alcombright, former Mayor John Barrett III, and local artist and developer Eric Rudd discussed the months leading up to the March 2014 closure of North Adams Regional Hospital through the present-day services provided by Berkshire Health Systems.

The six panel questions were often lengthy, aimed at prompting the candidates to address the benefits of a full-service hospital. Questions were at times met with confusion by Barrett and once described by Alcombright as "alarmist statements."

Alcombright spent much of the evening defending his response to the hospital's closure, while both Barrett and Rudd claimed they would have handled the situation differently. The incumbent said that although there is "no page in a handbook" for what to do when a hospital closes, he coordinated with state and local officials to respond to the crisis.

During his tenure, Barrett claimed that he helped keep Sprague Electric Co. in North Adams, in some capacity, for eight years after the company announced its plans to leave the city. The former mayor said he would have taken a similar approach to the hospital, not allowing it to close abruptly with only three days of notice.

"I wasn't shocked, from what I was hearing. But I'll tell you this much, the way that it happened was unacceptable," Barrett said of the abrupt closure.

Alcombright said he would welcome new in-patient services in North Adams if Berkshire Health Systems provided them, but continually noted the plethora of services opened here under Berkshire Medical Center since the former hospital closed. He said they represent a "new model" for health care in communities like the Northern Berkshires.

Although he admitted that "at the end of the day, BMC is calling the shots," Alcombright later said, "I want to see a health care and wellness solution that is robust and sustainable."

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"What I urge folks to really do is not to continue to dwell on what we lost in March [2014], but rather to be proud of what we have restored with respect to a sustainable and unique model of health care and wellness," Alcombright said.

Rudd was emphatic that a full-service hospital is a necessity in North Adams. He choked up when he relayed a story — which he admitted he couldn't verify — of a patient he said died en route to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. He blasted Alcombright for not sending a message to state officials that "we want a full-service hospital," after the hospital closed, and said there's "no reason" why North Adams can't have in-patient services.

"It was running just fine except for the fact that ... they got into a crazy real estate venture," Rudd said.

Barrett urged efforts to restore in-patient services in North Adams by winning a federal Critical Care Access designation to improve reimbursements to Berkshire Medical Center's North Adams campus. He also advocated for an assisted-living facility at the North Adams location and the return of psychiatric services.

"We should have at least what they have at Fairview [Hospital in Great Barrington] today," Barrett said.

Rudd — who implied Alcombright was acting as a "spokesperson" for Berkshire Medical Center — was outspoken in his stance on Berkshire Health Systems' Northern Berkshire operations. He asserted that it has lost the right to nonprofit status on all of its city operations, other than its emergency services. Were he to win the office, Rudd said, he would send BHS a tax bill for $500,000.

"The only problem I have is that a full-service hospital is not on their agenda, and they're giving us crumbs and we're falling for it like fools," Rudd said.

Barrett positioned himself as a strong voice who has had a relationship with Berkshire Health Systems' executives and would advocate for the restoration of services in North Adams, but stopped short of criticizing its efforts in North Adams.

"I have faith, and I've seen them in action, and I don't have any problem with them being the operator," Barrett said. "I agree with the mayor; they have done a lot for the community. I would just like to see them do a little more and move them to the next level."

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.


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