Ambulance issues: Mercy plans to halt emergency service by March 30
Mercy Hospital of Berryville intends to stop providing emergency ambulance service in Carroll County by March 30, according to a letter presented last week to County Judge Sam Barr.
"Please accept this letter as formal notification of Mercy's decision to end emergency ambulance service coverage to Eastern Carroll County, including the communities of Green Forest and Berryville, by March 30, 2016," says the letter, which is signed by Robert "Bob" Patterson, executive director of emergency medical services for the Mercy healthcare system. "This decision comes with heavy hearts and after much reflection around mounting financial losses.
"We will work collaboratively with the EMS provider selected by the court to take over responsibility for emergency ambulance services and will be ready to cease operations at any date you request on or before March 30. Mercy will continue to station an ambulance on the campus of Mercy Hospital Berryville to handle patient transports originating from our hospital after the transition of emergency coverage is complete."
The letter, which is dated Feb. 12 and was hand-delivered to Barr that afternoon, comes more than a year after Barr authorized a second ambulance service to begin operating in the eastern half of the county.
Officials from Mercy, which previously had been the exclusive provider of ambulance services east of the Kings River, met with Barr in December 2014 and presented him with a document indicating that Mercy had lost more than $2 million over a six-year period, including more than $500,000 in 2014 alone.
Barr then authorized Ozark EMS to begin accepting calls on an alternating basis with Mercy, saying he believed that would alleviate Mercy's financial losses. Mercy officials said the move had the opposite effect, cutting its revenue in half without a significant impact on fixed expenses.
"That has increased the operating loss for Mercy," the letter says. "We made the difficult decision at that time to reduce service from three ambulances to two and have since operated in an environment where EMS coverage has not been well-coordinated, leading to confusion, and in some cases the closest ambulance not being dispatched to medical emergencies.
"It has been our privilege to provide EMS services for the citizens and visitors of Carroll County since 2000, when the ambulance service in Green Forest decided it could not continue to provide service. In 2001, we expanded coverage to Berryville when another ambulance service found it no longer financially feasible to continue operations. We have provided services at a financial loss every year since, and the current level is no longer sustainable."
Patterson said by phone Monday that no Mercy employees will lose their jobs as a result of the decision. He indicated that some might be offered positions elsewhere in the Mercy system.
"We intend to take care of our co-workers," he said.
Patterson also said that Mercy's financial losses from the local ambulance service had grown even more than anticipated.
However, Patterson did say in his letter to Barr that if the county proceeds with the creation of an ambulance service district, an idea supported by some members of the quorum court, "we would welcome the opportunity to participate in that process to provide emergency medical services to the county."
At Monday night's meeting of the quorum court, Justices of the Peace voted 10-0 to amend a previous ordinance that created a Citizens Advisory Board to study options for ambulance service in the eastern portion of the county. The amended ordinance, which was read three times and approved with an emergency clause at Monday's meeting, authorizes the board to develop a Request For Proposal that it can then distribute to potential ambulance service providers.
Doing so, explained JP John Reeve, would allow the county to get an idea of what public subsidies might be necessary to support an ambulance district in the eastern half of the county.
Any millage levied to support an ambulance district would have to be approved by voters in each precinct included within the district.
Reeve had previously sponsored an ordinance that would create an ambulance service district but would not provide a funding mechanism for it. That ordinance has since been tabled while county officials wait for an attorney general's opinion on whether the quorum court has the authority to create the ambulance district.
Green Forest Mayor Charles Reece, who is chairman of the Citizens Advisory Board and is unopposed as a Republican candidate for county judge in the March 1 preferential primary, said in an email on Saturday that he is "not a happy camper."
"I stand by my initial statement 'someone is going to die as a result of the decision made by the county,' " Reece said in his email.
Ozark EMS confirmed in December that it is no longer taking calls in Green Forest or east of there to the county line, unless Mercy doesn't have an ambulance available. It's unclear how Mercy's announcement will affect that, but Reece said at Monday's quorum court meeting that Mercy's decision will leave Green Forest without service.
Barr, who is seeking re-election and is unopposed in the Democratic primary, addressed the issue only briefly at Monday's meeting.
"I regret that they choose the option to do that, but that's their option," he said of Mercy's decision. "We appreciate the service they've provided."