Wheels rolling on ambulance service deal in Garfield County
October 12, 2009
GARFIELD COUNTY – A potential controversy over changes to the ambulance service for western Garfield County apparently has been averted.
At a meeting at the New Castle Town Hall on Oct. 8, representatives of the West Care ambulance service, the governments of Silt and New Castle, and the Burning Mountains Fire Protection District agreed on a basic framework for the changes, according to some of those involved.
The changes, which are to take place next year, essentially are meant to place 911 emergency ambulance service under the Burning Mountains fire district, which is tax supported and mostly volunteer.
The new arrangement would disband the West Care service that has, in different iterations, provided emergency medical services to the region for years.
There were rumblings of concern among some county residents, who worried that the level of service would decline under the volunteer regime of the Burning Mountains district.
West Care has operated with paid employees, roughly a half-dozen full time and as many as 30 part-timers, and has earned a reputation for high-quality service.
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“There was some hard feelings,” confirmed Silt Mayor Dave Moore, who noted that discussions about the issue have been under way since 2008, though they were confined mostly to officials of the four entities involved.
“When the story got out,” Moore continued, “I think a few people panicked,” although he attributed the concerns to “a lack of information, mostly. There was a lot of emotions about this whole thing.
“I think last night we established some basic ground rules,” Moore concluded, referring to the meeting in New Castle. “I was very encouraged by it. We might not have been in agreement at the beginning, but we’re all on the same page now.”
And according to Burning Mountains Fire Chief Brit McLin, the concern over volunteers versus paid ambulance crews is misplaced.
“It’s the quality of care and the level of training, not how much they charge an hour,” he declared, adding, “I will use a volunteer staff as long as it’s feasible.”
If the district’s taxpayers demand a higher level of service than can be provided under the current regime, he said, he will do what is needed to provide the service as demanded.
But, he said, that may involve a tax hike, which is something he has pledged will not be a consequence, strictly speaking, of the transfer of ambulance services to the fire district.
West Care has for about six years been operating as an “enterprise fund,” under the town of Silt, meaning it was self-supporting based on fees for service with an annual budget of roughly $500,000. The arrangement was created with an intergovernmental agreement between Silt and New Castle, with the cooperation of Burning Mountains.
West Care has been providing 911 emergency service for roughly the same area as the fire district, as well as transport operations between hospitals and other facilities.
But Silt officials have said the arrangement was no longer a sound one, due to falling ambulance payments from insurance companies, rising calls for service from uninsured people who could not pay the fees, and lack of a tax base to directly support the ambulance service. Silt worried that West Care might become a costly liability if the ambulance service began running in the red.
Area residents, some of whom contacted the Post Independent, worried that if the service were reorganized, the level of service would drop, taxes would go up or some other calamity might befall the county’s citizenry.
Moore said he is satisfied that Burning Mountains would maintain the quality of the 911 service at its historic levels.
One troublesome aspect of the deal, how to take care of “inter-facility transport” services, remains unresolved for now.
But Taylor confirmed that there is a private ambulance company, Transcare, that is interested in taking on the transport services, although an actual agreement to that effect has yet to be crafted.
Taylor said that the two hospitals in the county, Valley View and Grand River, both are uninterested in operating transport services of their own.
Grand River, Taylor said, already has indicated willingness to contract with Transcare, and a meeting on the topic is scheduled for next week with Valley View.
And Transcare, she said, has indicated it will hire on any of the West Care full time employees that want to make the switch.