Sharp County Judge Larry Brown, Ash Flat Mayor Danny Traw and Cherokee Village Mayor Lloyd Hefley met with Grace Richardson and Jeff Graefe with Spring River Paramedic Ambulance Service.
The meeting was originally set to discuss ways the county could help the ambulance service, but members of the Sharp County Hospital Foundation Board, Ron Rhodes and Ebon Daggett, were also present to answer questions about the proposed hospital.
Brown said, "There is no doubt, we need a hospital, but the real question is how will we pay for one and sustain it?"
The meeting also provided an opportunity to get questions answered about the proposed one cent sales tax that will be required to pay for the hospital. Each of the quad cities has been asked to speak to their city councils about the issue. The hospital will be an interlocal hospital, although the specifics regarding governing and liabilities will be worked out later, according to Daggett.
The only way for a new hospital to be constructed in the area, according to Daggett, is through the cooperation of the four cities and the financial support of a one cent sales tax. Daggett said their group would come to a meeting at a later date with their feasibility study to answer more questions of the mayors as well as the ones the public might have regarding the proposed hospital.
Richardson spoke with the group about the dire financial need the ambulance service is experiencing. She said, "Our largest problem is the large number of uninsured and underinsured residents who can not or do not pay their medical bills." She said some just can not afford the bills.
According to Richardson, the cost of operating the ambulance for one emergency run is $618 and medical insurance or Medicare or Medicaid only pay $457 of that cost, leaving the service to absorb the loss or try to collect the difference. She said one common misconception is that the ambulance service is privately owned. She said their service is set up as a 501C4 Foundation.
According to the IRS Web site, a 501C4 is a civic league or organization not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes."
She said as of the end of June, the service had suffered a $175,000 loss and said they write off approximately $800,000 a year in uncollectibles.
Richardson said, "We are at great risk of not having an EMS in this area." She said they have been on a three year pay freeze and have micromanaged all they can. She explained over the last three years, the service has had a reserve and now there isn't any money left.
At $2.2 million annually to operate, Richardson said, "We have got to find some way to offset these costs."
When asked if constructing a hospital would solve the problem, Richardson explained, "This problem is much bigger." Although, if a hospital were built, the service could transport patients locally rather than to other cities, she maintains, it is still the patient's choice where they want to go.
She said there are a few options in regard to saving their service that has provided quality medical care and acted as a roadside emergency room for 37 years.
She said one would be a county wide fee and the other a sales tax. Richardson said she would get figures together and bring those back to a meeting in the near future. Brown said, "Let's all get our heads together and work for a common good, whether it be a hospital or just an emergency room, we need to do what we can and figure out how we can do it."
Richardson said, "We have been here 37 years and want to be here for another 37."
The meeting to discuss the hospital and ambulance service will be set sometime in the upcoming weeks. The Villager Journal will follow these events.