AT OUR MEETING on March 23, the Westborough Select Board voted unanimously to send a letter of support for Mass General Brigham’s proposed Integrated Health Services Center in Westborough. In my role as chair, I also made a brief, similar statement at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health public hearing in support of the project.
Since then, we have heard concerns and opposition to the project directly and in open letters and op-eds. Many of these objections reflect views of the project that are narrow in scope and appear to be based on outdated perceptions of Westborough as a community.
We understand the pressure that “safety net” institutions face and the need to ensure they remain healthy and viable. We want these institutions to thrive as they are a critical resource to Westborough and area communities.
As a Select Board, we are not qualified, nor in a position, to evaluate the extent to which the proposed Mass General Brigham services are needed. We are also not in a position to assess the impact of these services on other area institutions. We do, however, trust the Department of Public Health and the determination of deed process to assess the impact and regulate service offerings and scope.
Unfortunately, most of the discussions about the project focus on outpatient diagnostic and surgical services. This is understandable. Area medical institutions and for-profit companies see the inclusion of these services as a competitive threat to revenues. But focusing only on high-margin services is a misrepresentation of the project.
As an integrated health center, the Mass General Brigham plans include primary care, behavioral health, and related lab services. Like most areas of the Commonwealth, Westborough residents face a shortage of primary care and behavioral health services. The addition of these services will benefit those who live and work in Westborough and area communities.
Furthermore, as Mass General Brigham accepts MassHealth, the expanded availability of primary and behavioral health services should benefit members of our community that may otherwise rely on clinics, urgent care, and emergency rooms for care.
Many critics of the project have also stated that the proposed Westborough facility would not be accessible by public transportation. This is false. Westborough is home to the Worcester Regional Transit Authority VIA service, offering door-to-door-shared-ride van services for $2 per trip or less. Covering nearly all of Westborough and most of Shrewsbury, area residents are a few app clicks (or a phone call) and a short ride away from Mass General Brigham Westborough.
In comparison, and depending on the time of day, using public transportation from Westborough to Marlborough Hospital or any of the Worcester hospitals takes between 90 minutes and 2.5 hours. The trip requires a combination of VIA shared ride, commuter rail, and other regional bus services. With multiple transfers and schedules that vary throughout the day, these options are, at best, difficult to navigate.
We expect, as the VIA service continues to succeed and expand, more communities will have direct public transit access to the Mass General Brigham Westborough facility.
In addition to misperceptions about services and accessibility, much of the criticism makes assumptions about Mass General Brigham’s target demographic. Many opponents of the Westborough facility share their belief that the project is being built to serve “wealthy and white” communities.
This view of Westborough is outdated and inaccurate.
Westborough is a welcoming, diverse community. According to recently released 2020 US Census data, our non-white population is 39.8 percent. While this is less than Worcester’s non-white population (51.1 percent), it is comparable to Marlborough (40.9 percent) and greater than all of our surrounding towns and Hudson (21.4 percent).
Using housing as a measure, 37 percent of Westborough households are renters – again, a higher percentage than all of our neighboring communities. Our percentage of renting households is also greater than Hudson (27.5 percent), comparable to Marlborough (41.8 percent), and less than Worcester (58.7 percent).
In Westborough, 45.6 percent of renters are cost-burdened or severely cost-burdened, as defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. While lower than Worcester (58.2 percent), Westborough’s rate is comparable to Marlborough (49.1 percent) and greater than all of our neighboring towns except Northborough.
Yes, the average income in Westborough is greater than Worcester and some other area communities.
Westborough, however, is a community with socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity Labelling Westborough as “wealthy and white” is a disservice to our community and those who would be served by the Mass General Brigham Westborough facility.
As the Select Board for Westborough, our responsibility is to make decisions in the best interest of our community. As what is good for our region is also good for our town, these decisions are not myopically focused on Westborough. The Mass General Brigham Westborough facility will bring needed services and resources to our community, and our region, by expanding availability and access to primary care and behavioral health services, as well as outpatient diagnostic and surgical services.
Allen Edinberg is chair of the Westborough Select Board.