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North Adams Regional Hospital to close

Financial woes, patient drop force a Friday closing; Unions says they’ll fight move that will idle 530

Financially struggling North Adams Regional Hospital, which has treated patients in the rural northwestern corner of Massachusetts for 129 years, said it will shut its doors Friday.

The move would be the first permanent closing of an acute-care hospital in the state since Waltham Hospital shut down in 2003, though both the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union said they will fight the move.

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North Adams Regional Hospital, the largest employer in the small city, will idle about 530 full-time and part-time employees at the hospital and its affiliates. The closing would leave the northern Berkshire County communities of Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Drury, Florida, Lanesborough, North Adams, Savoy, and Williamstown without a community hospital for the first time in more than a century, forcing residents to seek health care elsewhere.

Officials from the state Department of Public Health, which regulates hospitals in Massachusetts, declined to comment on Tuesday.

The hospital had fewer than 20 patients in its 109 beds Tuesday, and will no longer accept new patients, said Paul Hopkins, director of community relations. Hopkins said patients now in the hospital will be discharged by Friday or transferred to other hospitals in the region.

In a statement, officials at the nonprofit hospital said the board of its parent organization, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, voted to shutter the hospital and the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, and three hospital-owned medical practices. The move came in response to the hospital’s “worsening financial status,” it said.

Over the past six years, as the hospital went in and out of bankruptcy, “we have investigated every possible avenue and exhausted all options as we searched for a way to continue operating the hospital and its affiliates,” board chairwoman Julia Bolton said in the statement.

Bolton said hospital officials hoped to prevent a shutdown. “But now, given our finances and the daunting challenges that small rural community hospitals are facing in this health care environment, we can no longer continue,” she said.

North Adams Regional hospital lost nearly $9 million between 2009 and 2011, but posted a surplus of $1.7 million in the 12 months ended last June, according to unaudited data filed with the state Center for Health Information and Analysis. The hospital has not filed any financial data with the state for the past two quarters.

State Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat whose district includes Berkshire County, said the hospital faced a precipitous decline in patient volume in recent quarters and suffered from high debt. But he said he had been working with Patrick administration officials and health care officials in Berkshire County to resolve the problems.

“This is a situation that could have been avoided,” said Downing, who has been fielding calls from constituents wondering if they could keep scheduled appointments at the hospital. “I’m not sure why they felt the need to do this today.”

Two health care professionals, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the hospital’s situation, said hospital officials were negotiating to have it acquired by Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, more than 20 miles south of North Adams. They said the talks collapsed recently because Berkshire Medical executives balked at assuming the North Adams hospital’s debt and pension obligations. Officials from the hospitals would not comment.

In a statement, Berkshire Medical said it would implement an “emergency plan” to care for patients displaced from North Adams Regional.

Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said many other hospitals are being squeezed financially at a time of rapid changes in the health care business, with commercial health insurers and government payers cutting reimbursements.

“This is an example where some small community hospitals in today’s environment are not going to be able to survive without cross-subsidization from a larger system,” Nicholas said. “We may be seeing more of this in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country.”

North Adams Regional executives disclosed their plans to close in a meeting with hundreds of staffers that reportedly turned contentious Tuesday afternoon.

Just before the meeting, said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the nurses association, nurses’ representatives were told by a hospital official that it would be closing. The association has about 100 members working at the hospital.

“It is totally irresponsible to close a hospital with three days’ notice,” said Schildmeier, who maintained officials were obligated to give the state at least 90 days notice. “We’re not prepared to accept this closure. We’re going to fight this with everything we can.”

Schildmeier said the hospital’s president, Timothy Jones, berated union members at the staff meeting. “He was actually yelling at our members because they were questioning their right to do this on such short notice,” Schildmeier said. He said unionized nurses may return to work Friday and try to take care of patients even if the hospital closes its doors.

Hopkins, the hospital’s community relations director, said executives have been discussing their moves with state officials “for weeks and months now,” though they weren’t disclosed publicly until Tuesday. Hopkins said he was “not aware” of voices being raised at the meeting.

Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents about 200 service, technical, and clerical workers at the hospital, said she was working with state lawmakers to find a way to keep the hospital open.

Turner said the union had been aware of the hospital’s financial problems, but was taken by surprise at the announcement of its closing. “We’re going to fight to keep this hospital open in a community that desperately needs it,” she said.

In the hospital’s statement, Jones said, “The implications of this decision are far-reaching but our primary concern is for our patients. We are working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition to other care providers, including other hospitals in the region.”

The hospital’s emergency department will close at 10 a.m. Friday, the statement said. It said the hospital is working with other area hospitals and ambulance services to ensure continuation of emergency services. Residents may seek emergency care at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in nearby Bennington, Vt.

Patients of Northern Berkshire Family Medicine and the VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire will be moved to other practices and agencies between now and April 4, the statement said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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