By NATHAN GREGORY
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted 5-2 in favor of suspending payments to OCH Regional Medical Center for ambulance services and reallocating those monies to the city’s contingency fund Tuesday.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey were the two opposing votes. The measure came as a recommendation from the city’s budget and audit committee, which is comprised of Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill.
Through an arrangement the city, Oktibbeha County and Mississippi State University have maintained with OCH in excess of 30 years, Starkville budgets a set amount each fiscal year for ambulance service. In the recent past, the county paid $234,000 annually for the service and MSU set aside $30,000. The city made annual payments of $40,000. Both the city and county have used assistance from Emergency Medical Services Operating Fund grants to meet the amount they’ve budgeted.
The city already paid its first quarterly sum to OCH for the 2013 fiscal year. The passed motion cancels the other three payments.
This fiscal year, a $15,000 grant annually accepted and used by the city to fund the EMSOF service was not received. Spruill said that was the case due to a failure to attend and participate in a course required to receive funding.
“We had to attend a class and that class did not get scheduled and we didn’t attend it. So in essence, we received notice that without that attendance documented we will not be receiving those grant funds this year,” Spruill said Tuesday.
Despite the error, the city previously budgeted its usual $40,000 contribution without accommodating for the grant. Mayor Parker Wiseman said despite not receiving the grant, there was enough budgeted to fund the service, which is why he advised against pulling the funding.
“(This) service consistently loses money. This year (OCH) budgeted a $397,000 loss for the service. The reason I would advise against pulling the funding is (the city, county and university are) all in this relationship together,” Wiseman said. “Because of the potential turmoil it could throw our ambulance service into, I don’t think we should wade into a decision that could jeopardize our ambulance service in the near future without knowing what the consequences are of it.”
Sistrunk said the hospital’s ambulance service is a billable service and concluded from her examination of hospital records that the entity is in good financial shape and showing a profit. Adding to that, the city is subsidizing the hospital for debt service on general obligation bonds for an expansion project and providing first responder services through its fire and police departments. Both of those actions are signs of city support for the hospital, Sistrunk said Wednesday.
“I do know ambulance services are not always profitable but … they can be profitable. I don’t know enough about the hospital’s ambulance service to speak to how they established the number they did to show a loss for their ambulance services, whether it includes direct cost only or includes overhead or what other factors enter into their budget process,” she said.
OCH Chief Executive Officer Richard Hilton said the shortfall the hospital now has will have to be passed on to patients, as there is no other funding for uncompensated care he is aware of to make up for the loss besides through Medicaid.
“It’s disappointing to hear the city is backing away from emergency services, especially when approximately two-thirds of our runs are within the city of Starkville. The hospital provides oxygen to first responders if they get exposed to anything considered a contaminant or vaccines for infection,” he said. “I’m really taken aback as to why they would want to do that. I’m kind of in shock right now.”
Hilton added that the city had notice of class hours necessary to continue receiving the grant because OCH submitted an ambulance budget to the city and county in June.
“That would have been notice to them,” he said. “It’s the same process that happens every year … to prompt that a certain number of class hours are required.”
Sistrunk said she asked for a courtesy call to be placed to the hospital to make OCH officials aware about the item and Wiseman had a discussion with Hilton about the matter, but no representative was present at the meeting to emphasize a need.
“No one from the hospital came to present us with additional information or us to make a request for us to vote in a particular way,” Sistrunk said. “I think if it was the urgency the mayor indicated it was … someone from the hospital would have come and spoken.”