Ambulance debate rolls into 2013, tensions continue to rise
January 4, 2013
The discussion of whether Banner Health should — or will — remain the emergency provider for Windsor and Severance ignited last week and likely will continue to be a divisive issue heading into 2013.
Weld County commissioners on Wednesday approved the first reading of an ambulance code change that would give them "exclusive purview" of emergency providers wishing to do business in the county. It would also establish a tiered licensing system. The meeting came at a time when fire authorities in the western part of the county argue response times have been rising — although they have yet to release details, and Banner Health firmly denies the allegations.
A Dec. 21 letter from Weld County officials denied a contract proposal from University of Colorado Health — a group Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue has been in negotiations with as they search for an alternative to Banner Health.
"It's clearly aimed at keeping the UCH out of doing business in Weld County," Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue spokesman Todd Vess said Monday, adding that lawyers with UCH are reviewing the decision. It is too early to know what legal challenges, if any, will follow or if an appeal will be sought.
Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue has been in talks with UCH — formerly known as Poudre Valley Health System — since November as it continues to seek the "highest quality service." The department has said it has been unable to craft an agreement with Banner that would guarantee the needs of Windsorites are met in the highest possible way, citing unacceptable response times and costs since the shift earlier this year.
Banner officials, however, strongly dispute that allegation and say their response times have not changed since they took over the service mid-year 2012. And they say Windsor-Severance officials have never raised the issue with them.
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"The Weld County Paramedic Service has provided high-quality, responsive staff and services to the Weld County area since 1974, including to the Windsor-Severance area …" said Rick Sutton, CEO of North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. He said that has not changed under Banner Health's management of ambulance services.
"Although it is certainly within their role to explore other options, we are disappointed that they feel the need to do so, particularly without speaking with or notifying us prior to their vote," Sutton added.
Additional details about potential contract proposals from UCH may be revealed at a 7 p.m. meeting Thursday in the Longs Peak Room at Medical Center of the Rockies. Details were not immediately available.
"My concern is anything that would jeopardize our ability to work with our regional partners," Windsor-Severance Fire Chief Herb Brady said Wednesday. The measure from the commissioners will have two more readings and comments in January and February while final details are hammered out.
The three levels of service in the code distinguish between primary care, transport of patients and standby service.
Commissioners questioned the fire districts' authority to contract ambulance services that fall in unincorporated Weld County, asking each district to look into their codes, which might have changed when they were incorporated.
The search for a new provider in the Windsor-Severance area and the code changes were simply coincidental in timing, according to Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway. He said the shift to a tiered system will outline differences among primary stations, simple transports and emergency situations, which have been needed for years. He said Windsor-Severance's pursuit of other options had no bearing on the proposals. Under state law, final negotiations for the ambulance options can be made at the county level, he said.
"I think it's simply coincidental that this issue is popping up now," Conway said. "We've been discussing this tier process for several months. We're simply trying to update our licensing procedures."
But not everyone has seen the decision the same way.
Benji Kitagawa, director of medical services for Weld County, said the changes proposed in the code moved him to resign from his position.
"In April, commissioners made comments that they would like to get out of the business of EMS … Why are they in the business of EMS today?" Kitagawa questioned.
Those weren't the only concerns voiced during Wednesday's meeting.
Steve Main, manager of Poudre Valley EMS, which is now under UCH, said he was concerned that commissioners' full control of ambulance contracts would bring uncertainty to providers with each new election and would allow the board to screen the open market.
"I also feel it would be possible to steer the tiers of services toward existing providers," Main said.
Response-time data from the past several years was not immediately available.
For Brady and members of Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue, the issue is simply about providing the highest quality service to residents, regardless of what the title says on the side of the bus.
Despite those views, Conway maintains that there's more to it when looking at all of Weld County, which sprawls across 15 fire districts and more than three-dozen municipalities.
"We have to look at this from a countywide perspective," Conway said, stressing again that he has yet to see much community input one way or the other on the issue. "We want to make sure all of our residents in Weld County — not just Windsor and Severance — are getting the highest quality service.
"Going forward," he said, "I come at this with an open mind."
The Tribune reporter Analisa Romano contributed to this report.