Ambulance debate: Quorum court expected to vote on issue in December
The future of ambulance service in eastern Carroll County remains uncertain, as the county's quorum court considers an ordinance that would establish an ambulance district east of the King's River and mayors of Berryville and Green Forest wait for the county's next move.
At its Nov. 16 meeting, the quorum court voted to table a third and final vote on an ordinance sponsored by Justice of the Peace John Reeve that would establish the ambulance district but would not provide any funding mechanism for the district.
Reeve has said he would like to the ambulance district established and a commission appointed to oversee the district, which would then solicit proposals from qualified ambulance service providers. Should the commission select a service that would require funding from the county, voters in the ambulance district would have to approve a millage dedicated to the district.
Currently, ambulance calls in the eastern half of the county are dispatched on an alternating basis to ambulances from Ozark EMS and Mercy Hospital of Berryville. Ozark EMS began operating east of the river in January after being granted approval to do so by Carroll County Judge Sam Barr. Previously, calls had been dispatched exclusively to Mercy.
Barr authorized Ozark EMS to begin operating in the eastern half of the county after a meeting with Mercy officials in December 2014. At that meeting, Mercy representatives presented Barr with financial information indicating that Mercy's ambulance service in Carroll County incurred an operating loss of more than $2 million from 2009 to 2014, including more than $500,000 in 2014 alone.
Barr has said he believed a second ambulance service in the eastern half of the county would help mitigate Mercy's financial losses; Mercy officials say the move has only served to cut into its revenues without having a significant impact on its fixed expenses.
Mercy has said the financial losses are caused in large measure by uninsured patients who are unable to pay for ambulance service. As a nonprofit, Mercy is prohibited from denying services based on an individual's ability to pay.
At the Nov. 16 quorum court meeting, JP Marty Johnson spoke against creating an ambulance district, calling any potential millage "a bailout" for Mercy. He alluded to an August meeting at which the director of ambulance services for North Arkansas Regional Medical Center in Harrison said that his service would be open to expanding into Carroll County and that it currently serves a three-county area without any public funding.
"You've got companies that will do this without another branch of government control," Johnson said. "Ninety-five percent of the people that I've talked to are against it."
Asked by JP Lamont Richie to explain his constituents' reason for opposing the creation of an ambulance district, Johnson responded: "The fact that it is basically just a bailout for Mercy and the fact that it is putting more regulation on something that free enterprise will take care of."
Richie said that he believed creating an ambulance district without also creating a mechanism to fund it would accomplish nothing.
"We're simply kicking the can down the road," he said.
While some JPs indicated they have received positive feedback on the current arrangement, Reeve disagreed.
"The information that I'm getting is that there's confusion and there has to be some reduction of services," he said. "It won't continue to operate the way it is now. ... Nobody is going to continue to operate at a half-million-dollar loss."
Johnson said the quorum court has not been provided with any documentation of Mercy's losses.
"All we have is what they're telling us and what you're telling us," he said to Reeve.
Bob Patterson, executive director of emergency medical services for the Mercy healthcare system, attended the Nov. 16 meeting. He said he would prepare documentation of Mercy's financial losses to be distributed to JPs at the December meeting. He also said that if Mercy decides to stop providing ambulance service in the county it would notify county officials well ahead of time.
Leon Cheatham, who owns and operates Ozark EMS with his wife, Kathy, confirmed Monday that his company is no longer taking calls in Green Forest or east of there to the county line, unless Mercy doesn't have an ambulance available.
Green Forest Mayor Charles Reece said there was an incident when there was a lengthy delay in getting an Ozark EMS ambulance to Green Forest. Although there was a Mercy ambulance in town, the call was dispatched to Ozark EMS based on the alternating rotation.
"It was an event after hours and it took approximately 45 minutes to get an ambulance from Berryville when we had one sitting at our fire station about a minute away," Reece said. "I haven't seen (Ozark EMS) here. Mercy has been excellent in taking care of the people here."
Reece said JPs need to consider what might happen if they don't take action.
"For some reason they are very reluctant to change and that's just the way it is," he said.
Berryville Mayor Tim McKinney said the county, rather than the cities, is in the best position to resolve the issue.
"It's going to have to be addressed at a county level," he said. "The city certainly can't afford to have an ambulance service. If the county can work out something through the judge's office I'd say we need to try to do it.
"There's just no way we could afford that," McKinney said of a city-subsidized ambulance service. "The ambulance district on the west side of the county is subsidized by tax. On the eastern half, which is the larger area geographically, it's always been left up to the hospital to provide it. I guess it's not working out for them as far as the money situation. The city certainly wants to work with other cities in the county to try to find a solution. I think long term the days of an unsubsidized ambulance service in rural areas are numbered."
The next regular quorum court meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14 at the Eastern District courthouse in Berryville.