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Nurses Deliver Strike Notice To North Adams Hospital

Staff ReportsiBerkshires
08:47PM / Tuesday, August 03, 2010

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Negotiations between the hospital and registered nurses went critical on Tuesday with a strike date set for Sept. 3, at 6 a.m.

Northern Berkshire Healthcare and the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been trying to hammer out a contract since earlier this year; the current contract lapsed in March. But concessions that health-system officials say are imperative to the financial health of North Adams Regional Hospital and that the union says will gut the contract and put patients at risk have become a major obstacle.

Nurses voted overwhelmingly on July 20 to authorize a strike in hopes of forcing the hospital to back down from a “flexible scheduling” proposal and other language on the table. Flexible scheduling was also reportedly a major sticking point during negotiations late last year between the hospital and SEIU1199, which also authorized a strike. 

“All the hopes we had that management would remove the concessions and find an equitable solution went out the window today,” said bargaining unit co-Chairwoman Ruth O’Hearn. “They not only kept the worst concessions on the table, they added more language that is unacceptable. We were left with no other alternative but to give them a strike date.”

In a statement, hospital officials said, “We have always expressed our belief that compromise is possible, and that through engaging in the negotiating process we could arrive at fair and mutually acceptable terms. We arrived at today’s negotiations with significant modifications to our proposal, in response to concerns the nurses had voiced in the media – though never at the bargaining table. However, at the end of the meeting we were presented with a previously-written strike notice.”

MNA officials say they understand the hospital’s frail financial condition and tried to work with the health system officials.

“Instead of taking up our offer, NARH has given the nurses no option other than setting the strike date,” said co-Chairwoman Mary McConnell. “We have absolutely no idea why the hospital has decided to go to a strike that would be very expensive.”

The hospital’s statement said officials were “extremely disappointed to receive the notice” but are prepared to protect the health of patients. 

“We want to assure the entire community that we have contingency plans in place and that North Adams Regional Hospital will continue to care for our community, should the MNA and nurses choose to strike.”

Both sides acknowledged that a strike would be damaging in terms of nurses’ wages and hospital resources. 


North Adams Regional Hospital to close

Financial woes, patient drop force a Friday closing; Unions says they’ll fight move that will idle 530

By: Robert Weisman Globe Staff,March 26, 2014, 1:00 a.m.

Financially struggling North Adams Regional Hospital, which has treated patients in the rural northwestern corner of Massachusetts for 129 years, said it will shut its doors Friday.

The move would be the first permanent closing of an acute-care hospital in the state since Waltham Hospital shut down in 2003, though both the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union said they will fight the move.

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.

Officials from the state Department of Public Health, which regulates hospitals in Massachusetts, declined to comment on Tuesday.

The hospital had fewer than 20 patients in its 109 beds Tuesday, and will no longer accept new patients, said Paul Hopkins, director of community relations. Hopkins said patients now in the hospital will be discharged by Friday or transferred to other hospitals in the region.

In a statement, officials at the nonprofit hospital said the board of its parent organization, Northern Berkshire Healthcare, voted to shutter the hospital and the Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, and three hospital-owned medical practices. The move came in response to the hospital’s “worsening financial status,” it said.

Over the past six years, as the hospital went in and out of bankruptcy, “we have investigated every possible avenue and exhausted all options as we searched for a way to continue operating the hospital and its affiliates,” board chairwoman Julia Bolton said in the statement.

Bolton said hospital officials hoped to prevent a shutdown. “But now, given our finances and the daunting challenges that small rural community hospitals are facing in this health care environment, we can no longer continue,” she said.

North Adams Regional hospital lost nearly $9 million between 2009 and 2011, but posted a surplus of $1.7 million in the 12 months ended last June, according to unaudited data filed with the state Center for Health Information and Analysis. The hospital has not filed any financial data with the state for the past two quarters.

State Senator Benjamin Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat whose district includes Berkshire County, said the hospital faced a precipitous decline in patient volume in recent quarters and suffered from high debt. But he said he had been working with Patrick administration officials and health care officials in Berkshire County to resolve the problems.

“This is a situation that could have been avoided,” said Downing, who has been fielding calls from constituents wondering if they could keep scheduled appointments at the hospital. “I’m not sure why they felt the need to do this today.”

Two health care professionals, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the hospital’s situation, said hospital officials were negotiating to have it acquired by Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, more than 20 miles south of North Adams. They said the talks collapsed recently because Berkshire Medical executives balked at assuming the North Adams hospital’s debt and pension obligations. Officials from the hospitals would not comment.

In a statement, Berkshire Medical said it would implement an “emergency plan” to care for patients displaced from North Adams Regional.

Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said many other hospitals are being squeezed financially at a time of rapid changes in the health care business, with commercial health insurers and government payers cutting reimbursements.

“This is an example where some small community hospitals in today’s environment are not going to be able to survive without cross-subsidization from a larger system,” Nicholas said. “We may be seeing more of this in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country.”

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. He said unionized nurses may return to work Friday and try to take care of patients even if the hospital closes its doors.

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.

Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents about 200 service, technical, and clerical workers at the hospital, said she was working with state lawmakers to find a way to keep the hospital open.

Turner said the union had been aware of the hospital’s financial problems, but was taken by surprise at the announcement of its closing. “We’re going to fight to keep this hospital open in a community that desperately needs it,” she said.

In the hospital’s statement, Jones said, “The implications of this decision are far-reaching but our primary concern is for our patients. We are working tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition to other care providers, including other hospitals in the region.”

The hospital’s emergency department will close at 10 a.m. Friday, the statement said. It said the hospital is working with other area hospitals and ambulance services to ensure continuation of emergency services. Residents may seek emergency care at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in nearby Bennington, Vt.

Patients of Northern Berkshire Family Medicine and the VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire will be moved to other practices and agencies between now and April 4, the statement said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeRobW.


The Berkshire Eagle

Letter: Nurses pushing BMC down path of NARH

Posted Friday, August 25, 2017 4:51 pm

To the editor:

News that the Massachusetts Nurses Association has notified Berkshire Medical Center of its intention to stage a one-day strike at the hospital was very familiar and very alarming. I, along with hundreds of other employees at the now-closed North Adams Regional Hospital, lived through a similar experience that did not end well for any of us. Even worse, hundreds of families were impacted and a community was changed forever.

I was the director of finance at NARH where I was involved in negotiating contracts with the MNA. Over time, the union insisted upon and gained significant advantages in staffing and rigid work rules. The resulting costs to the hospital were very high. During the last few contract seasons, the MNA claimed that supposedly unsafe staffing levels at NARH compromised patient care — the exact same tactics that are now underway by the union at BMC. It also threatened a strike in North Adams.

I believe this was the beginning of the end for this community hospital. Like BMC, a significant amount of patients at NARH were on Medicare and Medicaid and both programs reimbursed the hospital for care at lower levels than private insurers. Many patients with private insurance, who believed the nurses claims about “unsafe” staffing levels, went elsewhere for care. While NARH’s eventual closure was the result of many issues, a significant drop in the volume of patients on private insurance coupled with a disproportionate reliance on patients with government insurance were among the significant contributing factors.

No one thought that NARH would close, but it did. I don’t need to describe the community health care crisis that followed until BMC stepped in. Fortunately, BMC restored all essential services and hired hundreds of former NARH employees, including myself, which has greatly helped in maintaining the North Berkshire economy. Yet, many jobs were lost forever and our community sustained a catastrophic blow.

This brings us to today, as we watch the same MNA scenario play out at BMC. MNA signs are springing up on lawns, nurses are writing letters against their own hospital — despite BMC’s excellent record of quality and safety — and patients are worried about where they should go for care. I now work as director of financial planning at BMC and I am very concerned. Just like at NARH, the nurses’ union at BMC cites the hospital’s profitability without acknowledging the tenuous financial environment that surrounds health care. Hospitals can go from profitable to unprofitable in one year based on reimbursement rate changes at the state and federal level and other factors that are beyond the control of management.

Every time that the MNA says BMC has unsafe staffing levels, we lose patients. A one-day strike will force the hospital to hire temporary help. In North Adams — a much smaller hospital — this necessity cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. At BMC, it will be far more.

I see the MNA walking down the same path it took at NARH. BMC is a far stronger organization, yet the financial consequences will be severe. Gradually, BMC will lose its ability to fund services that the community relies on. I hope that the people of our community understand what’s truly at stake and will rally behind our community hospital, BMC.

Lawrence K. Taft,

North Adams

The writer is director of financial planning, Berkshire Health Systems.