BMC committed to emergency facility in North County, but it might not be at NARH


NORTH ADAMS -- Berkshire Medical Center is considering sites other than North Adams Regional Hospital for a satellite emergency facility, a BMC attorney said during a bankruptcy hearing on Monday.

Attorneys for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the parent company of NARH, Berkshire Medical Center, the state Attorney General's office, and bondholders convened for a bankruptcy status conference at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Springfield.

Northern Berkshire Healthcare filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last week, days after it closed the hospital, eliminating more than 500 jobs with three days of notice.

It's not a matter of what services will be provided -- all parties agreed restoring an emergency department to North County is a top priority -- but at what location, said BMC attorney Joseph Baldiga.

"It's still unclear where it's going to be reopened," said attorney Harold Murphy, who was appointed to oversee the bankruptcy proceedings last week. "[The NARH] facility may be greater than what they need."

Murphy added that he would work with bondholders to make the space at NARH available if BMC decides on it.

The cost of maintaining the entire NARH facility for the level of services BMC is seeking to provide could be "prohibitive," Baldiga said. Murphy told the judge that the utility bills for the entire facility are significant.

"The first priority is to get emergency services set up," said Judge Henry Boroff, who asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Boroff told Murphy he would be available on an emergency basis, as Murphy said he plans to bring as many as a half-dozen motions before the court, including one that would employ former NARH administrative staff to assist in closing out the hospital.

"It's a fairly complex process," Murphy said.

Murphy provided an update on his work since being appointed, saying he has been to the NARH site and that it is in "good condition." But Murphy also said it would be difficult to re-purpose the space for anything other than medical services.

Berkshire Medical Center and its parent company, Berkshire Health Systems, continue to absorb former NARH responsibilities, such as providing patient medical records, and have now hired up to 150 former NARH employees, according to Baldiga.

"The transition requires time," said attorney Robert Ross, who represented the Attorney General's office, adding that the Legislature created a 90-day notice of closure requirement for that very reason.

All of the parties agreed to postpone for one week a hearing on the Attorney General's restraining order -- which sets certain ground rules for the bankruptcy proceedings -- that had been scheduled for today in Berkshire Superior Court, according to Ross.

"We were also surprised and disappointed by this," said J. Mark Fisher, an attorney representing Wells Fargo.

Fisher estimated, when questioned by the judge, that Wells Fargo is owed "north of $30 million" by Northern Berkshire Healthcare. The attorney said Wells Fargo would seek to maintain its collateral but also "preserve health care" in the region, and be "constructive" in the process.

The judge also probed into why the hospital shut down with short notice.

Boroff asked what the hospital's rate of loss was and "why that difficulty was not predictable" until three days before NARH's closing. The judge also confirmed that Murphy would be investigating what precipitated the rapid closure.

Murphy said that while investigating the root causes would not be his top priority, he would be looking into them.

The hospital did have roughly $700,000 in its accounts when it closed, according to NBH attorney Daniel Cohn, but most of that would be designated for health insurance claims and other costs that will continue to roll in.

While Cohn did not know the hospital's "loss ratio" when asked by Boroff, he said the $700,000 "doesn't go very far."

Murphy estimated about $500,000 is expected in health insurance claims through Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

"I appreciate the enormity of the task," Boroff said.

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