OREGON COUNTY -- Ways to control the rising costs of operating an ambulance service was discussed at the July 21 meeting of the Oregon County Ambulance Board of Directors in Thayer. Officials from Ozarks Medical Center (OMC) attended the meeting.
The ambulance service in the county contracts with OMC. There are currently two ambulances stationed at Thayer and one at Alton. The ambulance board is governed by an elected six-member board of directors. Board members include: Clara Williams, president; Laird Kelley, vice president; Earl Presley, secretary/treasurer; Dorothy Ellis; Christy Casey; and Dee Dee Gum.
Williams said that each October the contract with the hospital comes up for a vote among the board members and if the board or hospital wants major changes in the contract they must give three months notice.
OMC officials presented statistics on the costs of operating the service. Due to federal budget cuts and rising costs, the service is experiencing a serious budget shortage. OMC presented a proposal that would bring the costs of operation down to an acceptable level.
Williams said the Balanced Budget Act began a huge overhaul of the Medicaid system. She said each section of the act was phased in and the ambulance portion of the act began nationwide three years ago.
"This caused ambulance districts all over the country to have great difficulty operating in the black, especially us in rural areas," Williams said.
There are 13 people per square mile in Oregon County and 792 square miles in the county.
The ambulance service upgraded the service in the county by including paramedics in addition to EMTs in the county ambulances. Williams said this has been more expensive. Paramedics perform advanced procedures that EMTs can't including being able to hook-up IVs.
"It is important we provide the best care possible for the residents in our county," Williams said. "OMC has always supported our decisions and helped with training. Several years ago we purchased a building in Alton for ambulance personnel and this also added expense. It is a lot more expensive to operate two buildings than one."
The ambulance now operates on $90,000 a year from the county and $140,000 from OMC. Williams said the last ambulance the district bought was around $80,000. "We are grossly under funded," she said.
At the meeting last Thursday officials from OMC were in attendance including Jeannie Looper, vice president at OMC; Mike Gross, chief financial officer; and Denise Lawsen, director of emergency services. Farrell Graves, ambulance service manager at OMC, was also at the meeting.
Proposed changes to the contract include staffing a 24-hour, seven days a week advanced life support (ALS) ambulance stationed at Thayer and a 10-hour a day, peek period ALS ambulance at Alton.
There are currently two ALS 24-hour ambulances in the county and a basic life support vehicle which is staffed only at peak periods when the call volume warrants.
OMC officials said they believe these changes would provide quality service at an affordable cost. They also stressed that this was just the beginning of a dialogue to address the problem and they welcome other ideas and solutions to the problem of maintaining a high level of service at an affordable and sustainable level of cost.
OMC officials said in 2004 the hospital lost $160,000 operating the Oregon County Ambulances. Oregon County ambulance tax revenue was $104,000.
Other emergency services available to Oregon County residents include first responders who are volunteers trained to respond to medical emergencies. The first responders may administer oxygen, perform CPR, check vital signs, and help stabilize patients before the ambulance arrives.
The first responders receive training and work with ambulance personnel to provide quick response to medical emergencies.
Air Evac, which has helicopters based at West Plains, Batesville and Cape Girardeau, is also available to provide rapid response to Oregon County.
Some options discussed by members of the public who attended the meeting included a vote to increase the tax levy, investigating the difference in costs of maintaining two full - time ALS vehicles rather than one full-time and one part-time, and looking into alternative funding. The public is encouraged to offer suggestions and ideas.
The next regular meeting will be held at the Alton ambulance base on Aug. 18 at 7 pm. Members of the board may also be contacted with questions or concerns.