NORTH ADAMS -- A representative of Stroudwater Associates, a health care consultancy conducting a study of health care needs in Northern Berkshire, was provided with a solid statement from local community members during a public hearing Tuesday.

The statement was repeated often by many: "We need our hospital, we desperately need our hospital," as one woman put it.

Brian Haapala, a director for Portland, Maine-based Stroudwater Associates, took notes while more than 30 community members stepped up to the podium and made their feelings known. Stroudwater is trying to determine what types of medical services will be sustainable in Northern Berkshire after the sudden closing of the former North Adams Regional Hospital.

Transportation was a dominant concern. The North County region, populated by many elderly and poverty-stricken people, needs a hospital simply because many of them have no way to get to a hospital more than 40 minutes away.

One woman noted that the North County region is isolated, and many find it hard to access health care.

Another woman suggested that a member of Stroudwater ride in an ambulance from north county to Berkshire Medical Center to see how long the ride takes, and imagine that same ride in the midst of a traumatic medical affliction.

Later, a North Adams Ambulance paramedic offered to give that ambulance ride to the consultants.

At the end of the meeting. Haapala noted that he has worked as an EMT and would like to take him up on his offer of an ambulance ride.

But transportation to the hospital was not the only concern. There was also concern about transportation back home.

One woman noted: "If you are taken to BMC in Pittsfield by ambulance late at night and are not admitted, how do you get home? You are seriously ill and have no way to get home. That's just sick."

Another recounted a story about a woman who broke her foot late at night. She is the single mom of a small daughter, so the two of them rode in the ambulance to BMC. They arrived at about midnight, but after her treatment, she was not able to get her and her daughter back home until about 9 a.m.

Fairview Hospital was brought up repeatedly as an example of a "fully functioning" hospital in a remote area.

"Surely if South County can support a hospital like Fairview, North County can do the same, and deserves the same," said a local woman.

Not everyone was committed to the return of a full-service hospital to North County. A Williamstown woman noted that in today's economy, a combination of physician practices and a system of urgent-care centers can handle the local medical needs adequately, and called for an appropriate level of health care whether it is a full-service hospital or not.

The economic challenges of supporting a full-service hospital was raised several times, but a local man reminded the gathering, "It's not about money. It's about quality health care for people who, for the most part, don't have much money, but do have serious health care needs."

The North Adams Ambulance EMT noted that Northern Berkshire has a high narcotic addiction rate, a high teen pregnancy rate and a high poverty rate. "And the loss of the hospital just added to those problems," he said. "We need a full service hospital."

The larger role the hospital played in the community was also raised.

"The hospital is not just a hospital, it is a community center, and the heart and lungs of the community," one woman told the panel.

Haapala thanked the crowd for turning out and for offering their opinions. He said he would be back in mid-August when the process was done to share the data they gathered, and take further input. He said the final report would be issued in late August or early September.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 663-3741, ext. 227.
On Twitter: @BESStafford