Provider may pull plug on M-F ambulance service

Commissioners voted last week against additional payments to keep the service.

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MILTON-FREEWATER - Once again, residents are only days away from losing local ambulance service due, in part, to a Umatilla County commissioners vote last week against continuing financial assistance to the local provider.

"It is possible that no ambulance would be coming for assistance," Umatilla County Emergency Services Manager Jim Stearns said, describing a worst-case scenario where the nearest ambulance service is 40 minutes away.

In recent weeks, Milton-Freewater ambulance provider and administrator Rick Saager informed county officials he will discontinue ambulance services to the area at the end of this month due to a $100,000 yearly shortfall he faces in his ambulance budget.

Saager is also the chief of the Milton-Freewater Rural Fire Protection District, whose fire-fighting services would not be affected by a discontinuing of ambulance services.

Earlier this year, county commissioners approved a monthly $1,000 ambulance payment to Saager through October, and they set up a new ambulance taxing district that follows the boundaries of the Milton-Freewater School District.

In November, voters in that new district will decide if they will pay an assessed property tax of 25-cents per $1,000 to support ambulance services, which would mostly make up the ambulance budget shortfall.

But even if approved next month, property tax funds would not be available for the district until the fall of 2012.

Saager said he asked county commissioners to provide $3,000 starting this November through January; that request was unanimously voted down at Tuesday's commissioner meeting.

"We asked for $3,000 each month. We have been trying to work with them. We took a thousand. Our fuel bill runs almost $3,000 a month. So it was at least a stipend amount," Sager said.

Sager also said he is uncertain if he will continue to provide ambulance service and is reviewing the issue with his attorney.

Exacerbating the issue is a current staff shortage at the East Umatilla County Health District, which provides ambulance services to Athena, Weston and Helix.

The health district's one and only paid paramedic recently resigned, which leaves only volunteers to make ambulance runs.

"They (Eastern Umatilla County Ambulance District) are depending on their volunteer staff to provide their calls currently, and quite honestly right now they are having a tough time meeting their demand," Stearns said.

Stearns also noted that Walla Walla paramedics don't have a licences to operate in the Milton-Freewater portion of Oregon. The next nearest ambulance services are with the city of Pendleton and the Umatilla Indian Reservation, almost 40 minutes away.

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