Massachusetts Needs to Take Over North Adams Regional Hospital
If you need a current nearby example of why our healthcare system is still broken, look no further than the precipitous closure of the 100 bed, 129 year old North Adams Regional Hospital this week.
Its owner, the private not-for-profit organization North Berkshire Healthcare, shut it down today after giving just three days notice to its 550 employees - many of whom were unionized and had worked there for over 20 or even 30 years. The hospital system is also closing the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire and three medical practices. It was North Adams' largest employer.
For that former industrial city and several surrounding communities in northwest Massachusetts, the nearest emergency room is now over 20 miles (or over thirty minutes drive) away in Pittsfield. Imagine residents with serious health problems having to wait for an ambulance and then make it through a 30 plus minute drive to get emergency care. As things stand, some won't survive that otherwise would have. Because a big hole has also been blown in critical care - and primary, home and hospice care - in that region. And there's no backup health system waiting to take up the slack.
North Berkshire Healthcare had been negotiating with Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield to save the hospital system, but talks fell apart over BMC's refusal to take over NBH's debt.
Service Employees International Union and other labor unions and community organizations are pushing state government to at least keep the emergency room open at this point, but it's not clear if that's going to happen. Even though a judge just ordered financially strapped NBH to keep it open, the proposed critical care rescue plan requires BMC to float a second emergency room on their own for at least the near future. Which they don't seem inclined to do. Short of much more militant actions than American unions and community non-profits typically organize these days, North Adams Regional Hospital is going down hard and permanently.
However, this needn't be the end of the story for the North Adams hospital. If labor union and community allies push a simple straightforward solution to the emergency created by North Berkshire Healthcare's corporate malfeasance, everything can be made right again.
But they'll need to remember the socialist roots of the American labor movement and many allied reform movements over the last 160 years.
They'll need to demand that North Adams Regional Hospital be made into a state hospital. The nature of the health care crisis presented by the lack of a front-line hospital in an underserved region of the state demands no less. While its true that non-profits are preferable to for-profit corporations when it comes to health care delivery, non-profits simply don't have the resources that governments do. It's one thing when the non-profits receive sufficient government funding to handle their operations independently, but that's clearly not happening in this case. So a full government takeover is in order here.
There was a time when Massachusetts ran many hospitals, sanataria, and mental hospitals. Over the decades, as public budgets were squeezed by private interests, most were shut down.
Today there are only four left run by the Mass. Bureau of Health Facilities: the 255 bed Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Mattapan, the 350 bed Tewksbury Hospital in Tewksbury, the 100 bed Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, and the 93 bed Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton.
I'm sure they can handle one more.
The expertise is there. North Adams Regional's 550 staff have only just been laid off, and the BHF already runs hospitals. The need is obviously there. The public health mandate is there. All that's needed is money. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has the ability to get that money at speed through it's own budget process, and through various federal programs.
But someone has to pressure them. And some existing organizations have to step into the evident leadership vacuum with lobbying know-how, lawyers, money, and ground troops.
The very things that America's largest union, SEIU - already on the scene - brings to the party. As do other Massachusetts unions, major community service non-profits, and religious organizations.
If the people of northern Berkshire County want to save North Adams Regional Hospital, those organizations and many others besides have to step up and fight with them for a public solution to a public problem. Unless some angel donor steps in and saves the hospital independently, and that doesn't seem likely to happen in the most remote underpopulated part of the Bay State.
Half measures will not do here.
So who's up for that fight?
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston