A death in the family
Imagine that you show up for work at a job you have had for 15 years and find out that the place you work at will be shutting down in three days. To make matters worse, the place you work at is a community hospital and that means the lives of thousands of people, including your family and friends, will be forced to change.
That is what happened recently in North Adams, Mass. Hospital staff were summoned to a meeting on a Tuesday and then told that their 109 bed hospital would be closing on Friday. (The official bed number is 109 but I have learned that the more realistic number is 36.) There had been rumblings of financial troubles, but the notice of closure was like dropping a bomb on this community of nearly 14,000 in western Massachusetts.
According to a March 25 Boston Globe story, "North Adams Regional Hospital, the largest employer in the small city, will idle about 530 full-time and part-time employees at the hospital and its affiliates. The closing would leave the northern Berkshire County communities of Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Drury, Florida, Lanesborough, North Adams, Savoy, and Williamstown without a community hospital for the first time in more than a century, forcing residents to seek health care elsewhere."
One of the nurses affected by the closure contacted me because this nurse felt the story of what happened to their community needed to be heard more widely. There will be ripples of change throughout health care systems in Bennington, Vermont as well as Pittsfield, Mass., and beyond.
Despite the presence of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a powerful union that represents 100 hospital staff, the hospital closed without providing the required 90 day notice. That will surely pit the union against the hospital in the courts.
What is worse, however, is that the hospital trustees and the hospital CEO did not give the community any more than three days notice of their intent to force people to travel at least 30 minutes for their medical care.
The Globe story described events on the day staff were notified of the closure. "North Adams Regional executives disclosed their plans to close in a meeting with hundreds of staffers that reportedly turned contentious Tuesday afternoon. Just before the meeting, said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the nurses association, nurses' representatives were told by a hospital official that it would be closing. The association has about 100 members working at the hospital."
"It is totally irresponsible to close a hospital with three days' notice," said Schildmeier, who maintained officials were obligated to give the state at least 90 days notice. "We're not prepared to accept this closure. We're going to fight this with everything we can."
Schildmeier said the hospital's president, Timothy Jones, berated union members at the staff meeting.
"He was actually yelling at our members because they were questioning their right to do this on such short notice," Schildmeier said.
The story goes on to note that, "(Paul)Hopkins, the hospital's community relations director, said executives have been discussing their moves with state officials 'for weeks and months now,' though they weren't disclosed publicly until Tuesday. Hopkins said he was 'not aware' of voices being raised at the meeting."
Closing a hospital in a small community should not be something that can be done unilaterally by one group of people. Whether nonprofit or for profit, if a hospital is the only institution of its kind in an area it should be forced by law, and its board should have the ethical and moral integrity to solicit community input over a reasonable amount of time before shutting down.
The nurse that I spoke to, who I will call R.N., told me that the Tuesday meeting did not result in any written statement to the staff. Instead, hospital employees were told by other staff that went to the hospital floors and informed staff of the closure.
R.N. did not work that Tuesday and the way R.N. found out that life was changing was from a phone call from a co-worker. Wednesday was R.N.'s last day of work that week and that meant that looking for a new job was suddenly thrust to the top of the to do list.
Hospital patients were forced to move to either Bennington or Pittsfield and it is not clear what happened to the patients that were served by the hospital-based home health agency and hospice.
The area's emergency personnel will now have to travel at least 30 minutes out of town for transports and that means that life-saving equipment will be out of service for lengthy periods of time. That could be the difference between life and death for residents in the greater North Adams community.
A bill to require Vermont hospital boards to make their meetings open to the public has never been able to be passed in the Vermont legislature. The events in North Adams show why a community with only one hospital, as is the case in most of Vermont, needs to have timely and open access when decisions are made affecting the lives of community members.
A petition drive, "Stop the Closure of NARH," has been started in North Adams to reopen the hospital and it can be found on Facebook under, "PetitionForNARH/stop the closure."
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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