NORTH ADAMS -- Financial negotiations aimed at opening an emergency care center in Northern Berkshire have been "positive and productive," according to Mayor Richard Alcombright.
Speaking at a community gathering at the American Legion in North Adams on Tuesday afternoon, the mayor described a conversation he had earlier in the day with David Phelps, CEO of Berkshire Health Systems.
"That’s as much detail as he was willing to share," Alcombright said after the gathering with former North Adams Regional Hospital employees, "but I sensed that he seemed much more enthused."
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing added that a bankruptcy hearing set for today could be "very interesting."
The hearing at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield will address both the need to establish a satellite emergency center in the former hospital and how much Berkshire Medical Center will have to pay Northern Berkshire Healthcare’s bond holders to lease the space.
Northern Berkshire Healthcare, which owes more than $30 million to its bond holders, closed the hospital on three days’ notice last month, laying off more than 500 employees and leaving the area with no local emergency services. NBH, the hospital’s parent company, has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
The 10 a.m. hearing likely will include discussion on an occupancy and use agreement between Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of BMC, and the creditors of NARH.
Such a deal, along with a license to use the facility, is crucial to emergency services being restored in North County, according to John Polanowicz, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Despite a complex process, Polanowicz on Tuesday said the bond holders, state, bankruptcy trustee and BMC all are working "in parallel" to open an emergency center in Northern Berkshire.
A license to operate a satellite emergency facility already has been granted to BMC by the state Department of Health, but it has yet to be approved by the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Polanowicz said. Although there is no specific timeline for the application, a financial intermediary has given "preliminary approval" to BMC, he said.
"We’ve got a really good working relationship with the regional CMS staff," Polanowicz said, but added CMS has timelines and guidelines it must follow. "They get a hospital closed in three days, which is, frankly, just about unprecedented."
A hearing on the state attorney general’s temporary restraining order, which set guidelines for the hospital’s closure and BMC’s takeover of certain services, was postponed on Tuesday. The hearing, which was set for Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton, was put off until next month while the bankruptcy proceedings play out.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s orders take precedence over the state Superior Court’s. However, Judge Henry Boroff has taken steps to keep much of the same provisions in the initial order, including access to NARH. The order also includes maintaining medical records and keeping the hospital’s doors open for BMC to evaluate what it would need to resume emergency services.
"Our No. 1 priority is ensuring patient access," Polanowicz said.
Berkshire Medical Center is looking to operate not only an emergency room, Polanowicz said, but outpatient diagnostic imaging services as well.
At a previous bankruptcy hearing, an attorney for BHS said the provider was considering alternative sites for an emergency facility. Although it remains unclear what bankruptcy trustee Harold Murphy has set the cost of using the NARH facility at, officials have indicated BMC would have to pay for the use of the entire building despite only occupying the first floor.
Murphy said last week "there are considerable costs associated with the utilities" if BMC were to operate out of NARH.
Polanowicz confirmed that, if BMC chose a site other than NARH, it would have to begin the federal and state application process over again.
"We’re really in unchartered territory," he said. "This is the first time in my career I’ve ever heard of a facility closing in three days."