Fire districts based in Winlock and Vader have submitted letters of intent to withdraw their participation from Lewis County Medic-One in light of what they claim has been budgetary mismanagement and poor financial oversight.
Formed by an inter-local agreement between District 15 (Winlock) and District 2 (Toledo) in 1993, and later joined by District 20 (Vader/Ryderwood) in 1997, Medic-One has been providing paramedic and medical transportation services to South Lewis County on a largely self-sustaining business model until recent years.
As transportation costs have gone up and reimbursement through Medicare and private individuals has gone down, Medic-One has had to draw more than $200,000 from reserves since 2009 to keep the program afloat. While $104,000 in reserves remains available, Operations Chief Grant Wiltbank has asked Districts 15 and 2 to contribute around $23,000 each from their budgets to stem continued dependence on reserve funding. (Wiltbank said District 20 has not been asked to make the same payment because their budget is significantly smaller and may not take the hit.)
It was both the request for funding and the lack of requests to other affected parties that District 15 cited as major concerns in their letter, which was received by Medic-One March 28.
"In consideration that the contribution would not be made equally by all benefiting members of the inter-local group, and fear that simply continuing to contribute funds would have little effect in assuring the long-term financial health of the program, the Board of Lewis County Fire District 15 agreed unanimously that no contribution would be made on its behalf at this time," stated the letter, which went on to say District 15 intends to withdraw from Medic-One after one year and one day of the receipt of the letter if a thorough and transparent study of its financial management is not conducted, nor corrective measures taken to balance its budget.
A similar letter from District 20 was received April 13 echoing District 15’s call for financial overhaul, adding all aspects of management and operations need to be examined.
"The service as a whole needs to be evaluated and a strategic plan drafted immediately to avoid financial failure," read the letter, which also stated District 20’s intent to withdraw one year and one day after receipt of the letter.
Both districts said their primary goal remains the service of residents in Lewis County and the longevity of the program, but stated they intend to seek medical transpiration services through other entities if the condition of Medic-One does not improve.
During a meeting of the Inter-Local Board April 16 at District 2 headquarters, Wiltbank responded to the letters by stating he is not sure where in the budget expenses could be reduced, stating Medic-One is having to endure harsh economic times the same as many other public and private entities.
"I can’t find anything where we’re wasting money that’s frivolously going out the door," he said to a room full of fire district officials and volunteers from across the county. "To expect that this organization is going to do it all on transport revenues, with what Medicare and everybody else is doing out there, is not a reasonable business model any more."
Wiltbank re-asserted the need for a contribution of funds to bring Medic-One "back up to speed," sating District 2, where he also serves as Fire Chief, voted on April 15 to contribute two payments of $15,000 for this year, on the condition District 15 would do the same.
"I think it’s worth funding," said Wiltbank of Medic-One. "If you can show me where we are mismanaging the money here, I’m all ears."
District 15 Commissioner and Inter-Local Board Member Randy Pennington said Medic-One’s contract for paramedic services to Morton General Hospital is one of the areas his district feels may be a source financial excess, stating the drive to Morton and back is "killing our ambulance," and having an additional paramedic dedicated to Morton is "a nicety, not a necessity."
Wiltbank reported during the meeting Medic-One cleared $43,584 in profit last year through Morton General service, adding the hospital covers 87 percent the paramedic’s roughly $90,000 in salary and benefits. He also said the paramedic responded to 252 emergencies within Medic-One’s service area, 167 of which were within Districts 2, 15 and 20. (Medic-One responds on a contractual basis to districts in Napavine, Onalaska, Salkum, and Mossyrock, for which the other districts pay a service fee depending on the type of call.)
Pennington said these numbers figured heavily into discussions and said he wished they had been expressed earlier, stating a further breakdown of such statistics could dramatically alter his district’s standing on the state of Medic-One. He added he is not wishing to cast blame entirely on Wiltbank for the current crisis, acknowledging the position the Inter-Local Board is in to affect policy and alter the budget.
"I’m not laying this at the feet of Grant Wiltbank," he said. "I think this goes on the shoulders of the commissioners who sit on this board, and I have been one of them."
Board Chair Dale Nielsen, a commissioner with District 2, noted Districts 2 and 15 had contributed annually to Medic-One until 2009 with the help of EMS tax levies, stating past approval of the levies indicates that residents are in support of sustaining the program. Wiltbank said contributions during that time were sustained by a larger population and tax base, adding officials eventually decided to stop the payments because District 20 was not being asked to contribute.
"Somebody decided that, because all three districts can’t contribute, nobody will contribute, and that’s why we’re here today," said Wiltbank, stating Medic-One was "not saying anything to slight District 20."
Board Member Carol Stine, a commissioner for District 20, acknowledged egos have been bruised and personalities have clashed as the districts have attempted to operate Medic-One, and said these personal conflicts need to be set aside if the program is going to become stable.
"It’s a wonderful system, and we all need it," she said, reminding officials and volunteers Ryderwood is an important part of District 20 and should not be left out of consideration. "I just feel that, if everybody would work together and put aside any personality conflicts with anyone, this can be a wonderful, working facility all the way around."
At the end of the meeting, officials resolved an in-depth look at the numbers is needed while Districts 15 and 20 again clarified they only wish to depart from Medic-One if circumstances do not improve. Pennington said this had been his desired outcome, stating such dramatic action as exercising his district’s option to leave the inter-local was needed to have these issues taken seriously.
When it was asked how members of the public may become involved in the stabilization of Medic-One, Stine replied all three districts in the area remain in need of volunteer medics and firefighters, with Wiltbank adding it has become common for one emergency responder to be brought in just as two or three are leaving. Pennington emphatically stated residents can hold officials accountable to the way Medic-One is being operated and funded by attending the Inter-Local Board meetings, which are held every third Tuesday of the month and are open to the public.
To learn which district will be hosting an upcoming meeting and what time they will begin, contact Diane Wallace at (360) 864-2366.