Despite the political and psychological implications of the state border, Bennington County and Berkshire County, Mass., are adjacent to each other and similar in many ways, ranging from rural landscape to a growing problem with heroin and opioid abuse.
There are many shared economic and cultural interests and many of us have family ties across the border.
So the sudden announcement that North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) and its related services under the umbrella of Northern Berkshire Healthcare would be closing on Friday was a big story in the Banner. More than 10,000 people saw the link to the article on the Banner’s Facebook page, and the link was shared a whopping 78 times. Several commenters spoke of family members among the more than 530 full- and part-time workers expected to lose their jobs.
One of the nurses who took care of the writer of this editorial when he was hospitalized in North Adams after an operation was from North Bennington. Even the chairwoman of the Northern Berkshire Healthcare Board of Trustees, Julia Bolton, has strong ties to Vermont, having once served as vice president of operations and chief nursing officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center here in town.
In southeastern Bennington County, the impact of closing the North Adams hospital on people in Stamford and Readsboro -- much closer to North Adams Regional than to SVMC -- remains to be seen. Experience at the paper tells us that those injured in car accidents in those areas are most often either taken to NARH or, if critically injured, flown completely out of the area to a major trauma center.
Needless to say, the loss of 530 jobs by people living in Massachusetts, Vermont and even New York will have a major negative impact on the regional economy.
Our sister paper, the Berkshire Eagle, brought up many important points in its Wednesday editorial about the closing: Yes, it was common knowledge for years that the hospital was in financial difficulty, but why such a sudden closing when 60 days’ notice is required by law? This will be for officials in Massachusetts to work out.
From the Bennington County perspective, we are pleased, as our article in this issue states, that Southern Vermont Health Care, the parent company of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC), is preparing for an influx of patients from Berkshire County, both emergency and otherwise. SVHC leaders spent Wednesday meeting with administrators from the Massachusetts hospital to discuss specific patients’ needs. If the closing in North Adams is indeed final, the possible addition of specialists and other medical personnel from northern Berkshire would be a fine addition to care offered here.
A hospital in existence since 1885, NARH and its parent corporation are, as the Eagle states, facing a "plight, one that is shared by small community hospitals across the nation, (which) exposes all of the weaknesses in our profit-based health care system. They are expected to cut their prices for medical services at the same time they are squeezed on government funding. Hospitals like NARH that are in low-income areas are hugely dependent on Medicaid funding, which an increasingly mean-spirited Congress is determined to reduce. NARH has cut departments in recent years and made other cost-saving measures in a bid to stay solvent."
This raises issues for another day, but we think that adequate medical care facilities are a basic component of civilized society. We wish our neighbors in northern Berkshire the best of luck in maintaining quality medical services in and for their community. We are grateful for the presence of Southern Vermont Health Care and SVMC, but we need to remain mindful of the ever-changing and precarious nature of the healthcare environment today.
~ Mark E. Rondeau