WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — For Northern Berkshire County residents struggling to get access to health care, help may be closer than they realize — in Vermont.
That was the message during a Southwestern Vermont Health Care forum on Tuesday aimed at those facing health care challenges including primary care doctor shortages and travel time to medical facilities.
"The invisible border has been breached," said Williamstown (Mass.) Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Emily Watts.
Watts, who was among about 60 people attending the forum at Hops & Vines restaurant, said she was without a primary care physician for over four years. When SVHC officials opened a new doctors office last October on Route 7 in Pownal, Watts found a primary care physician there.
"A close collaboration between the Northern Berkshires and SVHC can only enhance health care options," she said.
When North Adams Regional Hospital closed suddenly in 2014, Northern Berkshire residents found themselves with no nearby hospital. Primary care physicians already were in short supply.
Following the closing, the Pittsfield, Mass. based Berkshire Health Systems purchased the former hospital for $4 million and established numerous services at what is now the North Adams Campus of Berkshire Medical Center.
Services include outpatient imaging including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans, mammography, endoscopy, outpatient orthopedic surgery and a laboratory for blood draws.
Plans to bring outpatient general surgery services and open a renal dialysis unit also are on track, said Michael Leary, community relations director for BHC. Surgeries could begin later this summer and the dialysis unit is expected to open in the fall, he said.
The North Adams, Mass. campus also hosts a doctors building with numerous physician practices including some specialties and the upper levels of the former hospital are occupied by several services including an Operation Better Start program for woman of child-bearing age, a Berkshire Partnership for Health and a Neighborhoods for Health, which are both community initiatives, and a Berkshire Visiting Nurses Association office.
The north campus does not have a maternity ward or inpatient services. Those services are available at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, 30 minutes or more from most Northern Berkshire communities.
Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington is about 20 minutes from Williamstown and 30 minutes from most of North Adams and Clarksburg, Mass.
For the most part, the medical practices and the hospital accept Massachusetts-based insurance, said SVHC President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Dee. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, some programs associated with Health New England including Medicaid managed care, Fallon Select Care and Preferred Care and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts are among the plans accepted. Massachusetts Medicaid is accepted for hospital care only.
SVMC is one of 31 hospitals worldwide to have been recognized as a Magnet Center for Nursing Excellence four consecutive times, Dee said. The facility has a partnership with the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, N.H..
Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch said that utilizing Vermont-based medical services may benefit town residents. Primary care doctors in SVHC practices are accepting new patients, including doctors working at the Pownal facility, Dee noted.
"Getting the insurances accepted was a real hurdle," Dee said, "but now that we have that, [providing care to Massachusetts residents] is much more manageable."
"The idea is to work regionally and increase access to health care," Hoch said.
Dee emphasized the SVHC services including the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, a renal dialysis center, a long-term care facility, a maternity unit featuring a Safe Arms program for substance-addicted mothers, and a Transitional Care program that is capturing media attention as well as the attention of medical professionals at Stanford University Medical Center.
The transitional care program delivers a unique and necessary dimension to patient services, according to Billie Lynn Allard, administrative director of outpatient services and transitional care at SVHC. Highly trained nurses offer a variety of services including visiting patients at their homes, working directly with primary care physicians, seeing patients in long-term care facilities, and additional interventions.
The initiative has improved patient outcomes and reduced re-hospitalization rates by 68 percent, she said.
"We don't have 'patients,' " Allard said. "We provide care for people from the community. We are on the cutting edge of community care."