$3.9M grant will help expand health care access in southern Berkshire County | Local News

LEE — A $3.9 million multi-year state grant will help a newly formed South Berkshire collaborative deliver health care services.

The Lee-based Tri-Town Health Department, serving Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, will administer the grant. If fully funded annually by the state Legislature, the grant is worth $300,000 for each of the next 13 years.

The Massachusetts Public Health Excellence Grant aims to improve effectiveness and efficiency of local and regional public health by expanding opportunities to share public health services, according to Tri-Town officials.

The grant takes effect July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. However, the state will begin funding the Southern Berkshire Comprehensive Public Health Nursing Program for May and June to get it up and running immediately, according to Tri-Town Executive Director James Wilusz.

Wilusz says the grant will pay to hire two nurses at competitive salaries and full benefits and a part-time shared services coordinator. It will also pay other expenses associated with the program.

In addition to the Tri-Town communities, the new collaborative includes Alford, Great Barrington, Mt. Washington, Monterey, New Marlborough, Otis, Sheffield.

“Our goal is to ensure that our towns have ready access to all types of health programs from health clinics for older citizens to education in the schools,” Lenox Board of Health member Dianne Romeo wrote in an email to The Eagle.  “It is an opportunity one could only dream of before this grant became available.”

Wilusz agrees that smaller communities can’t meet their public health needs without state backing. Public health nurses will help “close the gap of health inequities” in rural areas.

“If we need to do a flu clinic, we’ll do it. If we need a wellness check, we’ll do it. If we need to do contact tracing, we’ll do it,” he said.

The pandemic highlighted the challenges of delivering public heath services to rural communities, according to collaborative officials. They say the grant is the start of a long-range effort to keep South Berkshire healthy.

“Clinical nursing has been the weak spot for most of us, and the new grant will enable all the towns to garner the clinical nursing piece that they need,” said Dr. Charles Kenny of the Stockbridge Board of Health. “But the sky’s the limit. What we do together in the future will be based on this beginning.”

Wilusz says the nursing program doesn’t replace any current contract towns have with a visiting nurse association. He noted the VNAs can act as a back up to the collaborative.

VNA coverage in South Berkshire took a hit a year ago, when Amedisys closed its Lee office, once the home of the independently run Porchlight VNA. Amedisys’ only Berkshire presence is an office in Pittsfield.