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Judge issues order preventing North Adams ER closure

A state superior court judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing North Adams Regional Hospital from closing its emergency department, which was scheduled to be shut Friday, but not halting the closure of the rest of the 109-bed community hospital.

Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini made his ruling Thursday afternoon in response to an injunction request from state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office. The order will remain in effect until April 3, when the judge will hear arguments for a permanent injunction, which could keep emergency services in North Adams for patients in nine rural northwestern Massachusetts communities who have been served by the hospital for 129 years.

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The temporary order said the emergency department must stay open until the North Adams hospital complies with a state Department of Public Health regulation requiring it to give a 90 days notice before shutting its doors unless the hospital runs out of money. The judge also directed the 302-bed Berkshire Medical Center, about 20 miles away, to seek a license to operate a North Adams emergency room as a satellite to its larger emergency department in Pittsfield.

Until that license is granted, North Adams Regional Hospital “is taking the necessary steps to comply with today’s court decision,” its parent company said in a statement. “The (hospital) Emergency Department will remain open with staffing including emergency physicians, registered nurses, lab, medical imaging and pharmacy services, as well as necessary support staff.”

The statement warned, however, that “we are now working to assemble staffing and ensure that we have necessary supplies — neither of which is guaranteed. We are also required to keep operating until we exhaust the organization’s funds, raising the possibility of running out of money while patients are in our facility. At this time there has been no offer of additional funding from any source.”

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Thursday’s superior court action appeared to be an opening move in a campaign by Massachusetts officials, Berkshire County lawmakers, and community leaders to come up with a plan for the hospital to continue to offer some level of medical services at its campus, possibly under the auspices of Berkshire Medical.

One key question that has yet to be determined is who will fund emergency operations at the financially troubled North Adams facility.

A decision written by Agostini said his order was made to “avoid an immediate threat to the health and safety of the residents in the [hospital’s] service area from the abrupt cessation of operations” and to give the parties time “to pursue planning for longer term provision of emergency medical and other services for residents.”

It also restrained creditors from taking possession of hospital property and utilities from cutting off power, water, and heat.

Patients, workers, and area residents were caught by surprise Tuesday when executives, citing worsening finances, said they planned to close the hospital at week’s end. A shutdown would idle more than 500 full-time and part-time employees at the hospital, a hospital-owned medical practice, and the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshires.

Two other doctors practices, Northern Berkshire OB/GYN and Northern Berkshire Family Medicine, will continue to operate with assistance from Berkshire Medical, the Pittsfield hospital said Thursday.

Berkshire Medical spokesman Mike Leary said his hospital would provide administrative services and help the practices move from their current offices within the North Adams Regional Hospital to other sites in northern Berkshire County. But he said Berkshire Medical would not assume ownership of the physicians practices.

“We want to assure a continuation of care for two very important sectors of the medical community there,” Leary said. “We know how difficult it is for patients to find medical services.”

The attorney general’s injunction request came hours after a group of union members and residents gathering in the hospital’s lobby for a morning vigil decided to occupy the cafeteria until state leaders came up with a plan to keep the hospital open.

The group started with several dozen people but had dwindled to a smaller number who had hoped to keep a presence throughout the night until executives tried to formally close the facility at 10 a.m. Friday.

An earlier prayer vigil Wednesday night drew more than 100 people to the hospital’s lobby where they remained until they were asked to leave, said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents about 100 registered nurses at the hospital.

After the morning vigil, “the decision was made that folks weren’t going to leave,” Schildmeier said. “They’ll keep a presence there until we get a guarantee the place is going to be preserved.”

Schildmeier called the judge’s order “an important first step,” but said unionized nurses and other hospital supporters would keep up the occupation until an agreement is reached to keep the entire hospital open.

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