Think Out Loud

Tensions continue to rise in Morrow County over ambulance service

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 15, 2024 4:51 p.m. Updated: Feb. 15, 2024 9:48 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Feb. 15

It’s been over a year since residents of Morrow County recalled two of their commissioners. Now residents are considering recall petitions again. For months, the county and its ambulance service, Morrow County Health District, have been in deliberations over a new service contract. Some residents feel that there has been a lack of transparency in the commissioners’ handling of negotiations. Berit Thorson is a reporter for the East Oregonian. She joins us to share more on what’s happening in the county.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It’s only been a year since residents of Morrow County recalled two of their county commissioners. Now they are considering kicking three other members off the board. The spark for this latest effort is a dispute over ambulance services. Berit Thorson is a reporter for the East Oregonian. She’s been covering this issue since December and she joins us now. Welcome back.

Berit Thorson: Thank you so much.

Miller: So, the heart of this dispute is the county’s plan to change its ambulance service area. Can you explain what the county commissioners want to do, what they put forward back in December?

Thorson: Yeah, so I actually came to this issue somewhat late in the game. So after months of back and forth, consulting with a lawyer, almost a year of work on this issue, in December, the county submitted an initial draft of their ambulance service area plan to Oregon Health Authority. It’s something that their lawyer told them that they had to do. And basically what it does is it provides an outline for how ambulance services in the county are going to be administered and it’s something that, they’ve had the same one and the county discovered, about a year or so ago that they weren’t working under an approved one, they weren’t working under like a legalized one. So this is something that they needed to fix to become in compliance with state law, basically.

Miller: The Morrow County Health District currently provides emergency services and other medical care in the area. It is a nonprofit special district with its own elected board members, meaning it’s separate from the county commission, separate from the county government, and it’s been vehemently opposed to the change in the ambulance service area. Why?

Thorson: The health district has provided ambulance service to the county for around 30 years now. They didn’t know that the old ambulance service area plan wasn’t in compliance and they felt that they could be working under the one that had recently been approved just a couple of years ago but was never official. And they felt it was kind of unnecessary to begin with, to make a whole new draft. But then once they kind of accepted that that was happening regardless of how they felt about it, they also then had specific concerns about the draft. They were worried about things like patient confidentiality protections. There was a concern about a change in the meaning of the word ‘Board’ when discussing how assets would be handled. They believed that, basically it wasn’t being done really in good faith almost, so they actually ended up issuing a 90-day notice to terminate their services, which is coming up. It ends on March 12th, meaning that by March 13th, they will no longer be the ambulance service provider to Morrow County as they have been for the past 30 years.

Miller: It’s worth noting that the county has said that doesn’t mean there won’t be ambulance service. It just means that it will have to provide it in a different way. What did members of the county commission say is wrong with the status quo? I mean, why not somehow get approval from OHA to basically keep things the way they are?

Thorson: Well, it’s so complicated. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the status quo. They’re not saying that Morrow County Health District is doing a bad job. They’re not saying that Morrow County Health District couldn’t continue being the ambulance service provider for the county. Really what they were saying is that the current ambulance service plan that they’ve been operating under wasn’t legal and so they just needed to make some changes to bring it into compliance.

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This is kind of a separate issue, but it’s tied in with this. They’re concerned that the review board for the plan is too closely tied to the health district. So they’re saying this is supposed to be the county’s responsibility. It shouldn’t be so closely tied to the health district. It should be our job. So they really are just trying to be like, we’re trying to do the background fixing and then we’ll figure out the details of who’s providing the service later. But then this leaves the current ambulance service employees kind of out to dry. They’re like, we wanna know what our job is gonna be. Are we still gonna have a job, after this change is made?

Miller: There’s also been a lot of public pushback. What kinds of concerns have residents, especially residents outside of Boardman, in Irrigon and Heppner, brought up?

Thorson: They’re really worried about a change in the quality of service for the ambulance provision. They really like their current emergency service providers. They like that those are their neighbors, they know their faces. They like the consistency, they don’t want to change. They also feel that the county commissioners haven’t been as transparent as they could have been, though the county commissioners would disagree. But residents just are really worried about how response times might shift or how maybe some of the focus would go towards more Boardman and its surrounding areas rather than the county as a whole. So residents are pretty upset about all of this. And at the meeting in December, after the health district announced its 90 day notice, there were around 100 people that attended the next board of commissioners meeting and almost all of them spoke in support of the health district.

Miller: It does seem, from your reporting, that there’s been some movement towards common ground, that the health district and the county have started to agree on at least some aspects of this. So where does this leave county residents right now? What’s the current situation?

Thorson: There has been some movement. Both sides have kind of agreed it is time to stop looking at the past. And there had been a lot of pretty inflammatory press releases on both sides, and a lot of just really intense feelings from both sides on this. So they’ve kind of both gotten to the point where they’re like, OK, let’s move forward together. The health district approves of the most recent version of the ASA plan which is currently being reviewed. And the county is waiting for feedback. And the county has said that the health district really is best situated to be the provider, though that’s not a guarantee that they will be. So that’s where they found the common ground.

However, they haven’t really found any other common ground. They had agreed to meet once a week and that is now on pause as of Tuesday this week, because they couldn’t agree on how long to extend services past this 90-day deadline. And so where that leaves residents…[they] are unsure of what’s gonna be happening next.

Miller: Meanwhile, I did mention the possibility of a recall effort. Things have gotten really heated. You reported on a meeting last week put on by a group called Morrow County Citizens for Liberty and Justice where people yelled and got in each other’s faces. Where does the recall effort stand right now?

Thorson: As far as I’m aware, the Morrow County Citizens for Liberty and Justice are planning today to file a petition for recall of all three commissioners.

Miller: Is this potential recall effort, or effort that actually may go past potential and become a real one, just about emergency services?

Thorson: No, it’s not. That being said, I do think that is one of the main drivers for a lot of people. The meeting that I went to was definitely the part that had the most people feeling the most strongly, standing up and that’s where the yelling happened and all of that. But it is not just about emergency services. There are concerns about the nitrate levels, which has been an ongoing issue in the county. Again, the transparency with the commissioners, residents feel that they haven’t been as transparent as they could have been, as well as a couple of other things.

Miller: Berit, thanks very much.

Thorson: Thank you.

Miller: Berit Thorson is a reporter for the East Oregonian.

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