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You're having a heart attack 45 minutes from a hospital. An ambulance that could save you is sitting in the garage.

Pendleton County has enough ambulances to save lives, not enough cash to run them
Posted: 1:03 AM, Jun 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-09 18:06:32-04

Pendleton County residents might soon need a new plan for medical emergencies, fiscal court magistrate Darrin Gregg suggested grimly at a Tuesday night meeting: “Get a canteen and a wet rag, and call Doc Adams from ‘Gunsmoke’ when you get sick.”

The situation is unlikely to become quite that dire in reality, but the small county’s ambulance service — a vital lifeline in an area where many people live 45 minutes from the nearest hospital — will soon have to keep one of its two advanced life support ambulances in the garage for most of the week.

The fiscal court won’t pay to close the service’s $175,000 deficit and to keep the ambulance running full-time after July 1.

That arrangement will mean one ALS ambulance for a community of 14,000 people increasingly in need of its emergency care.

“I hope and pray people don’t die,” Gregg said, but he’s afraid they will.

ALS ambulances are the only kind in which paramedics can perform procedures that involve puncturing a patient’s skin, according to Pendleton County Ambulance Service director Phillip Hart. The alternative, a basic life support (or BLS) ambulance, can’t deliver the same level of care. An IV, for instance, could only be inserted on an ALS ambulance.

As a result, the paramedic aboard each ALS needs more training and the vehicle itself costs more to run. That’s a problem, Hart said, for an ambulance district serving a county that hasn’t grown significantly even as its aging population’s need for emergency medical services has increased. There’s no tax base to fund it at the level it needs to be funded.

Raising taxes isn’t an option, either. Pendleton County already taxes property owners at the highest legal rate — 10 cents per $100 of assessed home valuation — to support the ambulance service.

Hart has his own bleak prediction if more money can’t be allocated: “You lose a patient on the way to the hospital because you have the equipment and tools sitting here in the station, but the lack of funding to pay the personnel to operate it and run it correctly.”

The fiscal court could choose to take the necessary money from other local funds, as Gregg suggested doing Tuesday. None of the other magistrates seconded.

Instead, the group passed a motion granting the ambulance service a one-time cash infusion of $50,000, which will enable it to keep paying its employees and running one ALS ambulance full-time for the next month. The other ALS will run three days out of the week.

The magistrates hope to have a long-term fix in place by the time the $50,000 runs out.

To arrive at one, however, they’ll have to sift through the complex set of causes behind the service’s financial troubles, including the county’s stagnant population, the number of residents who rely on programs such as Medicaid and past expenditures — such as the construction of a new ambulance HQ after the old one repeatedly flooded — coming home to roost.

“We’re used to saving someone’s lives,” Hart said after the meeting. Without enough funding, “you could get in a situation where you hold someone’s hand and they don’t make it to the hospital.”