Change in wind for Milton-Freewater ambulance

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- Ambulance service for several thousand residents is threatened after the area's provider gave notice it will soon end service because of continued years of operating at a loss.

"We have asked the county for years to help fund us so we can merely cover costs. The ambulance service will never be a money maker but to be able to cover operational costs would be great," said Milton-Freewater EMS spokeswoman Cathy Mebes.

Umatilla County Emergency Management announced this week Milton-Freewater EMS will end service May 1.

Mebes said the reason is financial, noting the privately run ambulance service loses an average of $98,000 a year to service Umatilla County Ambulance Service Area 4.

It is not uncommon for ambulance services to take in less money than their actual costs. The Milton-Freewater EMS and other ambulance districts, including Walla Walla's ambulance district, often cite low Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement as the cause. And they also note the majority of their clients fall under these types of reimbursements.

Kale King, an administrator and paramedic with the next nearest ambulance district, East Umatilla County Health District, said his district is only able to stay solvent because it receives a portion of property taxes form Weston and Athena residents.

He said the remainder of the $187,000 yearly budget is mostly made up of ambulance fees. Athena and Weston residents pay $800 for transport; those out of city boundaries pay $1,000.

"We still charge user fees for transport, and our tax base is only about 15 percent of our budget, but it helps us to get by," King said.

But the Milton-Freewater EMS is a private business, and the only private ambulance service to operate in Umatilla County.

"We do not want to go away. We do want to continue to provide this service. We are here. We are set up. We are doing a good job and we want to continue," Milton-Freewater EMS owner Rick Saager said.

Umatilla County Emergency Management spokesperson JimStearns said of the six ambulance districts in Umatilla County, nonereceive county funding. But he also noted that most receive some typeof regional funding, usually through property tax levies.

Saager argued the county supports other business for the good of the public, so why couldn't they support ambulance service?

"The county pays private companies to build roads and do all they do ... the thing of it is we are not asking for millions of dollars a year. We are asking for enough to offset our operational costs. And there is no service that can come in for $100,000 a year," Saager said, adding he doubts the county will find a bidder.

Stearns said the county will now send out a notice to bidders. But if no provider is chosen, he made it clear the county is not obligated to provide the service, a stand supported by Umatilla County Counsel Doug Olsen.

Saager disagreed, and said Oregon Administrative Rules require the county to maintain "the existing level of service after notification that a provider is vacating an ASA (ambulance service area)."

If no provider can be found, the county will also consider combining Milton-Freewater EMS with the next nearest ambulance district, East Umatilla County Health District.

While the logistics of joining the two districts have yet to be worked out, King made it clear his district isn't ready to accept such a contract.

As for going public, Saager said the service would considering forming a nonprofit and trying to get a taxing district approved, but he has neither the time or staff for either effort.

"We are the service provider. We really don't have time to go out and pass any levy. We run such a short staff as it is, we don't have the time or financial resources to pass a levy. We are here to save lives," Saager said.

The announcement about the termination of service has been coming for some time, noted City Manager Linda Hall.

"The last thing I would hope is people start panicking," Hall said, added that the city has been in contact with Commissioner Larry Givens about finding a new EMS provider, and any company applying for a contract will have to agree to respond to emergencies here with appropriate timing.

Milton-Freewater has been fortunate in that ambulance response has been good thus far, both when served by the present provider and by Walla Walla, Hall said. "I'm not sure that's the case in cities like Portland or San Francisco or New York. Or in much more rural areas."

The city council will carefully monitor the EMS situation, she added. "It's scary to think if I get hurt or my loved one has an emergency -- where is help coming from? So we want to make sure we are getting the best that we can."

Information on Milton-Freewater EMS transport fees was not available at the time of publication. Saager said the company provides about 1,000 transports a year, with roughly 70 percent of those clients paying through Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.

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