Credit where credit is due

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

As a general rule, I donít write columns about local news stories. The reason is that I might have to cover a story that Iíve written about, or at the very least be involved in supervising coverage of that story. I donít want anyone to think that our reporting of any particular story is anything less than 100 percent objective.

Iím going to break that rule today, because I think itís important to address some misinformation regarding ambulance service in eastern Carroll County.

Regular readers of this newspaper know that last week, Ozark EMS withdrew as the exclusive provider of emergency ambulance service in eastern Carroll County. The move was made official on Monday night, May 29, not quite a week after Ozark EMS owner Leon Cheatham walked into Carroll County Judge Sam Barrís office on the morning of Tuesday, May 23, and announced that he intended to stop service.

According to Barr, Cheatham said the service would be stopped that day, then amended that to say the service would continue through the day.

That led to an emergency meeting of the Eastern Carroll County Ambulance District Commission meeting that afternoon. That meeting was recessed briefly so that one of the commissioners, Amy Leivan, could speak to Cheatham via telephone. Cheatham did not attend the meeting and said later that he wasnít notified that it would happen. When the meeting resumed after Leivanís conversation with Cheatham, she said he indicated that he would continue service but would like to stop it ďby the end of the week.Ē

Bob Patterson, executive director of emergency medical services for the Mercy healthcare system, was at the commissionís meeting. He said Mercy would step in to accept emergency calls. Eureka Springs Fire Chief Nick Samac was also at the meeting and said his department would help, as well.

After the meeting, which ended at approximately 6 p.m., I posted a brief update on Facebook saying that Ozark EMS intended to stop its service in the near future. Cheatham responded, criticizing me for not contacting him. When I asked him to tell me what part of my post was not accurate, his only response was that there would be more information the next day.

I spoke with Cheatham by phone the following day. He indicated that he had been working on a deal to sell his company to North Arkansas Regional Medical Center of Harrison, which operates its own ambulance service. Barr alluded to that during the ambulance commissionís emergency meeting, as well.

I later spoke by phone with Vince Leist, NARMCís chief executive officer. He said the hospital had never been in negotiations to buy Ozark EMS, but had purchased $26,000 worth of equipment from Cheatham to help him meet his payroll obligations.

Also during my conversation with Cheatham on Wednesday, May 24, he was critical of Samacís offer to help in the eastern district, saying that anytime a Eureka Springs ambulance answered a call in the eastern district, the fire department was violating its contract to provide ambulance service in the western district. Samac dismissed that idea and explained that his department would not leave the western district uncovered but would offer assistance east of the Kings River when it was feasible to do so.

On Thursday, two days after Cheatham initially announced that he would be stopping service, he hand-delivered a written proposal to Barr. In that proposal, Cheatham said Pafford EMS, headquartered in Hope, would buy out Ozark EMS but keep Cheatham in place as an employee to continue service.

Within a few hours, however, Cheatham called Barr to withdraw that proposal. Pafford CEO Jamie Pafford told Cheatham that Pafford couldnít afford to provide service in the county based only on money it collected from billing patients for emergency calls. Cheatham said Pafford wanted to provide transfer services as well ó transporting patients from Mercy Berryville to other facilities. Transfers are considered more profitable than emergency calls because a higher percentage of bills for transfers are paid in full. Mercy handles its own transfers, and Patterson had made clear at Tuesdayís commission meeting that Mercy would not change that policy.

When he called Barr to withdraw the proposal involving Pafford, Cheatham said Ozark EMS would continue its service until 6 p.m. Monday, May 29, when the commission had scheduled a special meeting to discuss the issue.

Because the story was changing so rapidly, I waited until late in the day Thursday, May 25, to contact Cheatham. The Weekend paper was due at the press that night and I wanted to have the latest information. My first call, sometime around 3 p.m. went unanswered, and I left a voicemail. That call wasnít returned, so I called again just after 5 p.m. Cheatham answered to say he was in a meeting and working on an arrangement to continue service beyond the special meeting on Monday. I asked him to call me back when he was done with his meeting, and he said he would.

Shortly after 7 p.m., having not heard from Cheatham, I called him again and got no answer. I left a voicemail saying that I needed to send the paper to the press soon. He responded with a text message saying he was on an ambulance run. That was my last communication with Cheatham.

At Monday nightís special meeting, Cheatham told the ambulance commission that he was ď$40,000 or $50,000 in the holeĒ and would need another $120,000 to provide service the rest of the year. Failing some sort of financial arrangement with the commission, he said Ozark EMS would have to stop its service immediately. The commission, which doesnít yet even have a bank account, was not willing to make such an arrangement. At that point, Cheatham said Ozark EMS would stop its service immediately.

Patterson, who was in the audience, immediately began texting to make arrangements to begin providing service.

Some people who spoke at the meeting praised Ozark EMS for providing service in the county. Some even made reference to Ozark coming in after Mercy ďpulled out.Ē

Thatís simply not true, and itís not fair.

Here are some facts:

Mercy officials went to Barr in late 2014 to explain that they had suffered steady financial losses for years with emergency ambulance service, and those losses were increasing. The Mercy officials were interested in the creation of an ambulance service district, supported by a tax. Revenue from the tax would be used to pay for a contract with a dedicated ambulance service provider.

Barr, who said he felt threatened by the Mercy officials, instead authorized Ozark EMS to begin accepting emergency calls on an alternating basis with Mercy. Barr said he believed that Mercy would lose less money with a lower call volume; Mercy officials said the lower call volume meant fewer revenue opportunities without a real impact on expenses, since Mercy still had to keep an ambulance staffed and ready to roll.

This arrangement continued for approximately 15 months. In February 2016, Mercy informed Barr that it would stop its service by the end of March, which it did.

Cheatham, meanwhile, said Ozark EMS was making a profit here and had no plans to leave Carroll County. That was a critical point of contention during the debate over creation of an ambulance service district, with opponents of the district pointing out that there was already a provider in place.

Proponents, led by former Justice of the Peace John Reeve, argued that creating a tax-supported ambulance district would provide stability and guarantee that the eastern side of the county would not be left without service.

I voted for the ambulance district, because I did not believe Ozark EMS would remain profitable enough to continue serving eastern Carroll County. Thatís not a criticism of Ozark or Cheatham. Itís simply the economic reality thatís been borne out by history.

At the May 29 special meeting, representatives of several respected ambulance services were in attendance. At one point, one of the commissioners asked if any of those services other than Mercy would be willing to provide service, with no reimbursement from the county, until the commission is ready to take bids and award a contract for the service. Not one ambulance service, except for Mercy, raised their hand.

Mercy served this community for years. Was there always an ambulance available immediately? No, and the truth is there is no way to guarantee that there will always be an empty ambulance nearby when an emergency occurs.

When Mercyís financial losses became untenable, it approached Barr hoping to find a long-term solution. Even after that failed, Mercy stayed for 15 months, continuing to lose money, sharing call volume with Ozark EMS. When Mercy did stop its service, it did so with six weeks or more of notice, and with Ozark EMS already in place.

All the while, Cheatham maintained that Ozark was here to stay. Then he pulled the plug, with less than a weekís notice. And Mercy stepped in to fill the gap.

Still, somehow, Mercy is being painted by some as the villain in this scenario. Thatís not accurate, itís not fair, and itís not right.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.