Western Mass. residents visit Boston, describe health care woes

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 15, 2014….After nearly four weeks without access to nearby emergency medical services, hundreds of residents and nurses from North Adams converged on the State House Tuesday demanding the Patrick administration speed up the process to reopen an emergency room in the region.

“I would like the governor to do something right away. It is a health care crisis,” said Robbin Simonetti, a nurse who worked in the day surgery department.

Karin Robert, who was also a registered nurse at the hospital, said, “People are showing up at the ER and it’s closed. So they are driving to the local ambulance dispatch.”

Medical services are still unavailable at the facility once home to the North Adams Regional Hospital, a situation described as unsafe by local residents and nurses who once worked there.

People with chest pains have showed up at the shuttered emergency room, pregnant women in labor drive 30 to 40 minutes to deliver babies, and the local emergency medical technicians spend hours in ambulances shuttling patients back and forth to other hospitals.

After receiving state approvals from the Department of Public Health, the reopening of the emergency department awaits federal approval, and buy-in from bondholders from the closed hospital that is now going through bankruptcy proceedings.

Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz said the state Department of Public Health granted the necessary licenses to Berkshire Health Services (BHS) and is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for federal approval of the licenses.

“I think it is important to understand we are basically licensing an all-new hospital, and in most senses no one closes a hospital in three days . . . ” Polanowicz told reporters Tuesday, adding state and federal officials were given no notice before the hospital closed.

Attorney General Martha Coakley in late March announced plans for “a full investigation into the actions of the board that led to this rapid closure.”

While the closed hospital goes through bankruptcy court, the trustee for the bondholders controls whether Berkshire Health Systems can utilize the facility or not. Lawyers for the attorney general’s office are working with the bondholders and the trustee to try to create an operating agreement to restore services, Polanowicz said.

Once operational, the satellite emergency facility will be able to accept patients being transported by ambulance. Trauma victims will continue to be transported to trauma centers, which was the case prior to North Adams Regional Hospital closing, according to HHS spokesman Alec Loftus.

DPH also approved BHS’s application to re-license the existing Northern Berkshire hospice agency, which also needs federal level approval for Medicare authorization.

The hospital closed just days after its board of directors notified the state Department of Public Health that it would shut its doors amidst dire financial conditions. More than 500 employees were laid off, including more than 100 nurses.

Sen. Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, said it is a frustrating process to try to reopen a hospital.

“We have all been working on it pretty much nonstop since the hospital unfortunately closed,” he said.

“My hope is we will see progress in the next few weeks,” he said. “It could open tomorrow and that wouldn’t be fast enough from my perspective.”

Residents visiting the State House described being afraid.

Colleen LaFrance, a nurse who worked in the medical surgery and pediatric unit, said she fears for the safety children who live in the region, including her own 11 grandchildren. If they need emergency services from doctors, it could take anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on where they live, to drive to Pittsfield or over the border to the Southern Vermont Medical Center.

“It is pretty scary,” she said.

Robert, who worked at the hospital for 28 years, said “I don’t know how this happened,” before heading off to Gov. Deval Patrick’s office with a petition urging the governor to intervene and work to reopen the emergency room, and eventually a hospital in the northwest corner of the state.

“I want the governor to get our hospital back open,” she said.

Earlier this month, Patrick outlined steps being taken in cooperation with Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield to reopen the emergency department at North Adams. Patrick said the state is also working to expedite the transfer of a license to restore hospice and visiting nurse services. Both steps require state and federal approvals.

The governor declined to put a timeline on the reopening the emergency department because it is dependent on federal approvals. He said state officials are working with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to expedite the process.

Rep. Gailanne Carridi, a North Adams Democrat, said although nothing has happened to reopen emergency services yet, she believes that the Patrick administration and congressional leaders are making progress.

“There has been a lot of talking,” Carridi said. “It’s takes a lot of details and working out, and it is not something that happens overnight.”

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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