Ware looks to future as Baystate Health seeks to close Mary Lane

Baystate Health, while explaining this week the rationale behind its planned shutdown of the Mary Lane Outpatient Center, said that of the 28 patients per day seeking care at Mary Lane’s emergency room, over 85 percent present with common, minor, non-urgent conditions which could be treated in a primary care setting.

But to Tracy Opalinski of Ware, that means four of the 28 patients each day are experiencing a life-threatening situation and need to get to an emergency room right away.

And the other 24, she asks, why are they showing up at an emergency room with such minor maladies?

“There are no primary care doctors that take MassHealth,” said Opalinski, referring to the state’s federally funded Medicaid and children’s health insurance program. “So they wait until they are sick and go to the ER.”

There has to be a better way.

“We do need a health care clinic,” Opalinski said.

Even though Baystate’s plan must now go through a state Department of Public Health process before the closure can happen, Opalinski said she knows the community can’t use that process to stop the plan. The most that can happen is that the state can order accommodations be made.

Opalinski is a community leader: former select board member, vice president of the Ware Business and Civic Association and former chair of the Keep Care Local Coalition that unsuccessfully fought against Baystate Health’s decision in 2016 to close inpatient services at Mary Lane.

She said she been fielding calls since Wednesday from upset neighbors.

Opalinski pointed to the new Cedarbrook Village, a $15-million senior housing complex that opened in July near Mary Lane. Does that business want to be near a health care center or a vacant piece of land?, she asked.

Charles S. Lask, owner of Nat Falk clothing store in Ware — itself an institution in the town having been there since 1936 — said the closing is terrible for people who can’t travel out of town for care. And it sets Ware back at a time when good things are happening and housing prices are up,

“We have some good viable businesses down here,” Lask said. “We have committees working on parking and improvements. We have positive things going on.”

Ware officials said they were caught off-guard by Baystate Health’s announcement.

Baystate announced plans on Tuesday to close the entirety of Baystate Mary Lane over the next two years. First, Baystate said it plans to close its Mary Lane Satellite Emergency Facility in June and shift much of that burden to its Baystate Wing hospital in Palmer, which is about nine miles away,

Some work will shift to Wing, while cancer care services will transition to the D’Amour Center for Cancer Care in Springfield.

Opalinski pointed out that Wing isn’t just nine miles away from Ware. It’s nine miles further away for patients coming from places further north and east.

Over the next two years, imaging/3D mammography and rehabilitation services, as well as OB/GYN and pediatric medical practices, will relocate to Baystate Wing.

About 80 employees at Mary Lane will see their jobs moved or will have the opportunity to get new positions within the 12,000-person Baystate workforce.

As for the Ware campus, Baystate President and CEO Dr. Mark A. Keroack said Tuesday the provider cannot see a use for the Mary Lane property — 21 acres with a 131,000-square-foot building on South Street that’s in need of at least $5 million in repairs and upkeep. He suggested that Baystate Health tear it down and offer the land as greenspace to the town.

Ware Town Manager Stuart Beckley said Keroack’s proposal is just one option.

“The town and Baystate would consider the health and economic needs of the community during this planning,” Beckley said.

Opalinski said she has worked with providers, including Springfield’s Caring Health, over the past few years in hopes of getting a clinic someplace in town, hopefully one with a dentist.

Caring Health Center had pursued a Health Resources Service Administration New Access Point grant to expand its medical services into Ware, according to Tania M. Barber, president and CEO of Caring Health.

” At that time we were working with Baystate Health, who was willing to allow CHC to lease a small space within Baystate Mary Lane’s outpatient facility,” Barber said. “Unfortunately, we were not awarded the NAP grant and therefore were not able to continue pursuing moving healthcare services into Ware. Financially, this is not something CHC can do on its own without some type of financial assistance from either HRSA or the Town of Ware.”

Opalinski blamed the lack of funding on the Trump administration and said the project is worth a new try at any Ware location given the closure of Mary Lane and the new Biden administration.

She also asked about the fate of the Lewis N. Gilbert Trust. Gilbert, whose former home once stood where Mary Lane was later built, left a trust that includes $7 million for the hospital, contingent on the facility operating as a functioning hospital.

In a written statement provided by Baystate, Scott Berg, vice president of philanthropy, said:

“The changes at the Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center will be implemented over the course of the next two years. As we move forward with our plans, we will honor the legacy of our donors in accordance with their expressed wishes.”

Ware is not alone. Hospital owners have been cutting back or closing all over the state.

Steward Health Care closed its satellite emergency room in Quincy in 2020 after having closed everything else at the hospital there years earlier. That site will be demolished and redeveloped, according to the Patriot Ledger.

In October, MetroWest Medical Center closed all medical hospital services at its Leonard Morse Campus in Natick . This includes the medical/surgical service, intensive care unit, operating rooms, emergency department and outpatient rehabilitation service. The facility will be used exclusively as a behavioral health center, according to papers filed with the state.

In September, Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke permanently closed all 74 of its inpatient psychiatry beds at the end of June, including a 12-bed pediatric unit. The hospital, owned by Trinity Health Of New England, cited a lack of psychiatrists, the age of the building and financial concerns.

In North Adams, the community’s North Adams Regional Hospital closed suddenly in 2014, declaring bankruptcy after years of financial losses and bad real estate deals crippled its ability to adjust to a changing marketplace and stopped efforts at a sale or a merger.

The closure 40,000 residents in northern Berkshire County without access to health care and 500 people out of work.

The larger Berkshire Health Systems took over the property and in the years since it’s been a success story, said Michael Leary, spokesman for Berkshire Health Systems.

Berkshire has a 24/7 emergency room at the North Adams campus as well as clinical and diagnostic services, outpatient surgery, and specialized health and wellness programs. There are primary care and a multi-specialty physician practices in the building both belonging to Berkshire Health Systems and privately owned and leasing space.

Leary said Berkshire Health has been able to identify needs and meet them in the building, despite there being no inpatient care. Berkshire Health has 175 employees in the North Adams campus.

Baystate executives talked this week about efforts to do similar things at Mary Lane, like running the emergency department.

In 2019, Baystate Health opened a $1.7 million upgrade at Mary Lane Outpatient Center’s Imaging Center including a 3D mammography unit at the Mary Lane facility.

The problem is, patients didn’t respond in enough numbers to make the facility work financially.

Nearly half of Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center’s capacity is unused during the daytime and 90 percent is unused during overnight hours

Mary Lane and Wing were competitors until 2014 when Worcester’s UMass Memorial Health Care transferred Wing to Baystate. UMass had operated Wing for 15 years prior.