Milton-Freewater ambulance service shifted to Athena, Walla Walla

The county has approved a six-month deal that takes the local provider out of the picture.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- Starting Sunday, residents in a medical emergency will receive ambulance service from Walla Walla or Athena.

The Umatilla County commissioners on Tuesday certified East Umatilla County Health District in Athena and City County Ambulance/Walla Walla City Emergency Services to provide ambulance service to residents of Milton-Freewater.

The decision came after privately owned Milton-Freewater Emergency Medical Services announced in February it would cease service May 1 if it did not receive financial support from the county.

Milton-Freewater EMS had bid for the right to serve local residents, but was apparently not chosen because it stated in its bid a need for financial support from the county to cover operating costs.

In a statement, M-F Rural Fire Department Chief Rick Saager said commissioners have known since 2005 that Milton-Freewater needed an ambulance district, or financial assistance from the county, but no action was ever taken.

Saager said the commissioners' decision Tuesday to contract with ambulance services in neighboring cities would put people's lives at risk. Walla Walla and Athena are each about 11 miles from Milton-Freewater. It was also unclear whether Walla Walla or Athena would serve local residents first in cases of an emergency, or which agency would take the lead for emergency calls in Milton-Freewater.

"In our many years of service, we have not seen such a lack of concern for life and safety by our elected officials," Saager said.

Milton-Freewater EMS has provided ambulance and medical support to the area since 1982. Although the EMS has served Ambulance Service Area 4, or the Milton-Freewater area, it did not operate within an official district or municipality, which means it has been unable to tax local residents to cover its costs.

The EMS has relied on insurance payments, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and private payments from individuals to maintain operations. The agency has reported losses of about $94,000 a year because of cuts from insurance payments and nonpayment from customers.

As part of its decision Tuesday, the commissioners also established a committee that will seek a tax district for Milton-Freewater. The new Milton-Freewater Ambulance Advisory Committee is represented by Fran Anderson, Cheri Davis, Linda S. Frank, Shane Garner, Orrin Lyon, Sean Moon and John R. Perkins, the East Oregonian reported.

Commissioners named Athena and Walla Walla ambulance services as temporary providers to the area in a contract that will last six months.

Cathy Mebes, public relations director for the Milton-Freewater EMS, said residents could potentially wait more than 20 minutes for an ambulance from Walla Walla or Athena to arrive, while an ambulance from their agency could be there in a few minutes.

Mebes said if no changes could be made to the commissioners decision this week, then the Milton-Freewater EMS staff of paramedics and emergency medical technicians would lose their jobs.

Sam Hopkins-Hubbard, a Milton-Freewater resident who also serves on the City Council, said he had some legal concerns over the commissioners' decision.

Hopkins-Hubbard said listing more than one responding agency could lead to miscommunication, where too many ambulances are dispatched, or none at all. He also said that while the decision may have been a financial one, the commissioners will still be obligated to pay Walla Walla and Athena to provide services in Milton-Freewater.

"The county is responsible for ambulance service," he said. "They're not going to get out of paying someone something."

A group of residents and local representatives were to meet with commissioners today to make a case for maintaining the Milton-Freewater EMS as the main provider rather than turning to Walla Walla and Athena for service.

"I don't think the county commissioners really understand what they're about to end," Hopkins-Hubbard said.

Hopkins-Hubbard said there may still be an opportunity for commissioners to reverse their decision in the coming days. The Umatilla County Ambulance Service Area Advisory Committee would also be reviewing the ambulance service bids and making recommendations to commissioners before a formal decision is made, the East Oregonian reported.

Mebes said establishing the service district was a step in the right direction. But in the six months until it can be established, residents will pay the price.

"We take this very seriously and we hope the commissioners are taking it seriously too," Mebes said. "Seconds matter. The people of Milton-Freewater matter."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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