State officials Wednesday hinted they may be preparing to challenge the planned Friday shutdown of North Adams Regional Hospital, with Attorney General Martha Coakley saying her office is weighing legal moves and Governor Deval Patrick suggesting he wasn’t yet ready to concede the financially ailing hospital will close its doors.
Coakley, who calls North Adams her home town, said in a statement that she was “deeply concerned by the rapid pace of this closure.” Working with the governor and the state Department of Public Health, she said, “We are considering all legal options to prevent this quick closure and maintain access to health care services for this area.”
Patrick, speaking to reporters a day after executives disclosed plans to shutter the 129-year-old hospital in northern Berkshire County, didn’t spell out what steps state officials are prepared to take to prevent the closure of the 109-bed hospital. But he said officials from the public health department had worked with the hospital last weekend in an effort to keep it open.
“It leaves a hole in the service area of a very important part of the Commonwealth,” he said. “I will say I don’t think this is over ... What we need is a viable facility in North Adams.”
The planned closure, which hospital executives blamed on deteriorating finances, would idle about 530 full-time and part-time employees and leave nine communities in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts without a nearby hospital. It would be the first permanent shutdown of an acute care hospital in the state since Waltham Hospital closed its doors 11 years ago.
“It comes as a total surprise to the community, and it’s causing panic in poverty-stricken residents,” said Ralph Brill, an architect who owns an art gallery in North Adams.
Brill likened the shock to that of the closing of the small city’s once-thriving Sprague Electric manufacturing plant that laid off 580 workers in the 1980s. “For a generation that experienced that, there’s a still a lot of trauma,” he said. “Now we’re going through it a second time.”
The basis to a legal challenge to the North Adams hospital shutdown may be a requirement that state officials be given 90 days notice. But public health department representatives didn’t respond to questions about when or whether they were notified about the closing and whether the hospital had met state requirements or received a waiver.
State lawmakers, union members, and Berkshire County community leaders were meeting throughout the day Wednesday in an effort to to keep the hospital open but it wasn’t clear if they could find a solution in the two days remaining.
A meeting scheduled at the American Legion hall in North Adams was expected to draw labor representatives, religious and community leaders on Wednesday night.
“We don’t think this is a foregone conclusion, and we’re going to ask the governor to step in an stop this disaster,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents about 100 registered nurses at the hospital. “He should be getting on a helicopter and getting out there. This is the equivalent of a mudslide or a natural disaster. Right now there’s no place for an ambulance to take people in that area.”
Meanwhile, a Boston University public health professor sent a letter to Patrick calling on him to declare a public health emergency to prevent the North Adams hospital from closing. The professor, Alan Sager, and his former colleague Deborah Socolar, said the Patrick Administration should draw from the state’s two-year-old distressed hospital fund.
“It’s a small hospital,” Sager said. “It doesn’t need a lot of money to stabilize its finances.”
Sager said larger hospitals with deeper pockets have received Medicaid increases even as the government health insurance program for low-income residents has cut back on payments to smaller community hospitals. Noting how remote the northern Berkshire communtiies are, he said, “I wouldn’t want to be in that area in the snow without a hospital nearby.”
The theme of reimbursement disparities was also cited in a statement by a group called the Healthcare Equality and Affordability League, which was started by for-profit Steward Health Care System and Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union but also includes nonprofit Boston Medical Center, the state’s largest “safety net” hospital for poor residents.
“This is a terrible loss for the people of North Adams and surrounding communities who need and deserve high-quality and affordable health care close to home,” said Laura Dhooge, the group’s executive director. She blamed the closing on a “vicious cycle of inequality within the Massachusetts health-care financing system” and called on the state to boost Medicaid rates to hospitals, like North Adams, that serve a disproportionate share of low-income patients.