‘The patients did not come’: Baystate Mary Lane, part of Ware since 1909, closing in two years under pressure of the modern health care market

The president and CEO of Baystate Health said Tuesday he knows there will be some anger in the community about the health system’s plan to wind down operations at the Mary Lane Outpatient Center over the next two years, shifting services to Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer. Dr. Mark A. Keroack — who saw patients at Mary Lane when he practiced in Worcester, and whose parents were born there in the 1920s — said people have an emotional attachment to the hospital, which has been part of Ware’s community since 1909.

“I think clearly this is going to be a blow to the community besides the whole health care side of things,” he said.

But Keroack told reporters Tuesday that it’s his job, and that of Baystate’s administration, to make a “clear eyed” assessment of the patient traffic through Mary Lane, of the difficulty in maintaining a building that’s about a century old, and the challenges in recruiting doctors to what’s become a small rural practice.

Warm feelings are not enough, he said.

“We are simply not seeing people go there when they are sick,” Keroack said, adding that the patient numbers are not sustainable. Nearly half of the outpatient center’s capacity is unused during the day and 90% is unused overnight.

Baystate said it plans to close its Mary Lane Satellite Emergency Facility in June. Some work will shift to Wing, while cancer care services will transition to the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care in Springfield.

All the other services from Mary Lane, including imaging, 3D mammography and rehabilitation services, obstetrics and pediatric medical practices, will move to Wing over about two years as Baystate designs and completes $10 million to $15 million in improvements there.

The plan will be submitted to the state Department of Public Health for review. There will be a public comment period and public hearings. The state rarely rejects plans for hospital consolidation outright, but instead asks for adjustments before ultimately acquiescing.

About 80 employees at Mary Lane will see their jobs transferred or will be offered other jobs within the 12,000-employee Baystate Health system. Molly Gray, president and chief administrative officer for the Baystate Health Eastern Region, said Tuesday that she doesn’t expect any layoffs as there are generally openings through the system.

Keroack speculated that Baystate would be willing to demolish the Mary Lane building and offer the building to the town as green space. The facility is a 21-acre property on South Street with a 131,000-square-foot building that’s in need of at least $5 million in repairs and upkeep

A satellite emergency facility there has seen minimal demand, Baystate officials said. Of the roughly 28 patients a day seeking care there, it’s typical for 24 to have common, minor, non-urgent conditions like cold or flu symptoms and sprains, which could be treated in a primary care setting.

“Most real emergencies are not going to Mary Lane today, anyways,” Keroack said.

Many of the emergency department patients are children and teens.

In 2019, Baystate Health unveiled plans for a $1.7 million upgrade at the facility’s imaging center, including the 3D mammography unit.

Meanwhile, Mary Lane and Healogic Wound Care opened a wound care unit at the facility in 2019 with hyperbaric chambers supplying oxygen-rich air to promote healing. Earlier this week, Baystate confirmed that the wound care center will close at the end of this week.

Gray said the wound care and imaging expansions were good-faith efforts by Baystate to build business in Ware.

“These were really efforts to get something to grow in that location,” she said. “We marketed those and the patients did not come.”

Gray and Keroack said Baystate is working on transportation options.

Recruiting challenges

Doctors are reluctant to come to practice at Mary Lane in part because of how quiet it is. In the last two to three years, the facility has lost seven primary care doctors. They’ve only managed to hire one new doctor to backfill.

“This is a market reality,” Keroack said. “The candidates really seek robust, multispecialty practices.”

They also don’t want to be alone in the middle of the night in an underused emergency room.

And Keroack said the sentiment also goes for recent graduates of physician training programs at Baystate.

“We have fewer and fewer one- or two- doctor offices, and more offices with eight to 10,” he said. “Those are the kinds of places that are attractive to the new graduates.”

Baystate based its decision on Mary Lane on experience and a market study. Keroack said people who depend on the health system’s other outlying hospitals — Wing, Baystate Franklin in Greenfield and Baystate Noble in Westfield — needn’t worry, as Baystate has been able to grow services in Greenfield and Westfield.

Baystate merged Wing and Mary Lane in 2016, following a state public health Review similar to this one, in a cost saving move. The merger involved eliminating the inpatient operation at Mary Lane in an effort to close a $150,000-a-month budget gap.

The two hospitals were competitors until 2014, when Worcester’s UMass Memorial Health Care transferred Wing to Baystate. UMass had operated Wing for 15 years prior to that.