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'I wanted our own': Some in Berkshires 'feel pretty blessed' to have North Adams hospital reopen

A decade ago, a 130-year-old hospital in western Massachusetts abruptly shut down. Now, North Adams Regional Hospital is about to fully reopen.

After a $2.85 million renovation, the facility will have in-patient beds starting next month.

People in the northern Berkshires said they've missed going to a nearby hospital.

At the Daily Grind restaurant in Adams, owner Ben Acquista grilled a hefty pile of bacon. The old hospital is where his kids were born. He remembered several emergency room visits.

"Not enough for a frequent flyer card, but we were there. I knew the doctors' names. The E.R. doctors — I knew them by name," he said.

His employee, Linda Hartman, lives in Cheshire. Her two children were also born at the hospital. As she cleaned tables, she recalled when it closed.

"I thought it was horrible," she said. "We always went to North Adams. It was — I want to say quaint. I don't know if that's a word for a hospital, but the waits were a lot shorter. You seemed to get more attention."

83-year-old Joanne Barcomb was having lunch with her daughter Peggy Weslowski. Barcomb was a surgical technician at North Adams. She retired before it closed in 2014.

"I worked there almost all my life. I worked with the best surgeons and the best nurses," she said.

She said she was very upset that it closed.

"It makes me mad. There was a lot of B.S.," she said.

Barcomb didn’t want to say much more.

Both she and her daughter said having to drive about 30 minutes or more to a hospital has been too much for some.

"There's so many old people that just don't want to travel. There's a lot of people that don't want to travel to Bennington or to Pittsfield," Barcomb said.

People in northern Berkshire County have not had to travel for all of their health care.

Shortly after the hospital closed a decade ago, Berkshire Health Systems opened a 24-hour emergency facility, then purchased the property and — over time — opened outpatient services, including radiology, wound care and renal dialysis. It also offers cardiac rehab and some outpatient surgery.

However, there are no inpatient beds. That will change next month.

"We're going to start off with 18 beds and they're all going to be private rooms," said Berkshire Health Systems President and CEO Darlene Rodowicz.

The state requires any new hospitals to have private rooms. The facility is considered a new hospital by the state.

North Adams has approval to expand to 25 beds, which it will do "if there's demand, Rodowicz said.

"We'd have to spend a few more million dollars to renovate the unit," she said.

Rodowicz said she is aware there are people in north county who avoid getting care if it requires travel. She said Berkshire Health Systems' goal is to offer care where people live.

"Because you need to get that care as soon as you have an onset. And when you put off care, it becomes a bigger problem," she said.

Since the hospital closed in 2014, patients from the northern Berkshires have been going to the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield for some care. Even after the new hospital opens, patients could be transferred to Pittsfield for a serious heart condition or stroke. If they need heart surgery, they could go to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, or a hospital in Albany or Boston.

If someone has signs of a heart issue, but does not require intensive care, their physician may have them stay at North Adams Regional Hospital for observation or as an inpatient.

When the old hospital closed a decade ago, its owner filed for bankruptcy. Rodowicz said a key difference now is its new federal designation as a "critical access hospital." She explains this dramatically changes how costs are covered.

“We're not dependent upon people coming through the doors," she said. "The 'critical access hospital' [designation] recognizes that every community, no matter how small it is, deserves access to care. And Medicare will pay for the cost of having people on standby, even if there aren't any patients in the facility.”

For example, in the emergency department, a nurse, a nursing assistant and a physician, at a minimum, are always needed. That requires three salaries, even if there are no patients.

"And if there aren't any patients in typical reimbursement, there's no payment," she said. "But in a 'critical access hospital,' as long as during the day you saw one Medicare patient, if that was the only patient you saw, Medicare would pay 100% of that cost, even if you didn't provide a service."

And that can make a difference in a rural area with a smaller population.

Another key to the new hospital's success, Rodowicz said, is it will share some services with Berkshire Health Systems.

"We share EMS coordination. We share our finance team. We share our IT team," she said.

But one challenge could be staffing.

"We will be opening with some 'travelers,' and ultimately we need to fulfill all of those roles to make sure we have the workforce we need to take care of our communities throughout the county," she said.

The North Adams facility may have traveling nurses, surgical techs and even physicians, Rodowicz said.

But there is some good news. At a recent job fair, 24 people were hired on the spot. Berkshire Health Systems is paying a minimum of $18 an hour for housekeepers, nursing and medical assistants. The rate is more than $20 an hour when the employee works weekends or night shifts.

Back at the Daily Grind, Acquista said people feel a little bit more at risk if they have to travel further for a hospital.

"I was confident that Pittsfield would serve us well," he said about Berkshire Medical Center. "But I  wanted our own if we could have it. I feel pretty blessed that they’re able to find a way to reopen it."

North Adams Regional Hospital still needs a license from the state and a Medicare certification. Hospital officials hope to open mid-March and celebrate with a ribbon-cutting on March 28, 10 years after the old hospital closed.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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