The Glacier County Health Board and the Glacier County Health Department made a plea to the Glacier County Commissioners on Jan. 23 to “consider the impact the Glacier County EMS has on the overall health and safety” of the county’s residents and to “make sure the EMS is adequately funded.”
Glacier County filed a lawsuit against the Indian Health Service of the United States on Dec. 17. According to the complaint, which was filed by Glacier County Attorney Terryl Matt, “The County has determined that, absent prompt payment sufficient to cover necessary expenses, including payroll, it must lay off 11 County employees who work for EMS, and run County EMS with volunteer staff.”
Mike Schultz, Cut Bank Police Chief and spokesman for the Glacier County Health Board, told Glacier County Commissioners Michael DesRosier and John Overcast that Glacier County EMS “is quite literally a lifeline” to many residents in Glacier County. The EMS also works closely with local hospitals, law enforcement and fire departments to develop emergency response plans for all types of disasters, accidents and mass casualty incidents.
“We understand services in our county do come at a cost,” stated the Board in its letter of support to the Commissioners. “However, we do feel it would not be in our county’s best interest to cut Glacier County Emergency Medical Services or attempt to survive on volunteer service.”
Schultz asked the Commissioners to provide the Health Board with information on their plans for the future of Glacier County EMS.
Chairman DesRosier responded, “We don’t have any plans” at present. “We have some concerns,” he continued, pointing out the EMS “spent a lot of money building up” the service and that “really put us in a hole with overspending.”
Later in the meeting, DesRosier said, “In discussion with the County’s Chief Financial Officer (Chancy Kittson) about the EMS budget, it’s possible their budget may be cut even more, but we’ve resisted that.”
Addressing Glacier County’s current financial position, DesRosier stated, “We owe ourselves $5 million and the biggest deficit was paying off EMS, which was over $3 million.” DesRosier was referring to the County’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes Fund which had a FY 2019 year-end balance of more than -$5.1 million.
DesRosier admitted the Commissioners have “limited them (EMS) extensively” which has resulted in “skeleton crews and operation.”
He reminded those at the meeting the Commissioners asked the voters to approve a special EMS Mill Levy but “we didn’t get the support from the taxpayers.” In hindsight, he said, the Commissioners should have asked the Board of Health and other EMS supporters to help with promotion and passage of the mill levy.
Schultz told the Commissioners, “Some people were a little apprehensive on how their tax money is spent.”
DesRosier pointed out, “IHS is one of our biggest debtors” and Glacier County has sought the help of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in collecting the debt. “We have a legal team trying to collect the debt,” he said, adding, “If we collect (IHS debt), it will help keep the doors open.”
Schultz said Health Board members had heard EMS services may be “more limited” in the future.
“If there is no money, there is no money,” replied DesRosier. “We’ve talked to the State and it’s not an essential service.”
DesRosier continued, “We’re hoping stories in the Wall Street Journal…will put pressure on IHS…the taxpayers need to look at the fact we have not had to raise their taxes…”
Before the Commissioners make any decisions on the future of Glacier County EMS, Schultz asked if they would contact the Board of Health. Members of the Glacier County Board of Health include: Dr. Hank Clay, Health Officer; Nancy Hjartarson, RN, Board Chair; Commissioner Overcast; Becky Atkinson, RN; Jeff Severn, Vice Chair; and Schultz, Secretary.
“We’re hanging on by a thread; it’s literally a skeleton operation right now,” said DesRosier.
Northern Rockies Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Cherie Taylor asked if the Commissioners were planning any further cuts in EMS services or staff within the next week or month. She explained NRMC has not had a death–yet–as a result of the limited EMS services, but there have been close calls. She explained volunteer EMS staff members aren’t allowed to transport certain types of patients and only Advanced Life Support (ALS) trained staff can transport others.
While the State of Montana may not consider EMS an essential service, in rural areas like Glacier County, it is definitely an essential service. Taylor said few patients can afford the $30,000 bill to be transported by fixed wing or helicopter. Ground transport is more affordable at $6,000-$8,000.
“No, not right now. We’re struggling…I can’t give you an answer right now,” replied DesRosier.
Carol McDivitt, BSN, RN, is Glacier County’s Lead Public Health Official and head of the County Health Department. She submitted a letter of support to the Commissioners asking the Commissioners to “prioritize and support local Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and make sure EMS is adequately funded.” (See her letter on page 3.)
McDivitt told the Commissioners it is “crucial” for her department to start receiving its State and Federal funds, which are currently being held up due to the County’s inaccurate and delinquent reports to the State of Montana.
DesRosier said “we have a couple meetings scheduled with the State” and the County was able to get their Stone Garden law enforcement grant reinstated.
Commissioner Overcast stated he would like to be included in those meetings with the State.
DesRosier was asked if the meetings could be held at the Glacier County Courthouse, instead of in Helena. This would not only save the County mileage, per diem and lodging expenses, but give county department heads, employees and the public an opportunity to an update on the County’s financial position from State officials.
DesRosier said he would check with State officials on moving the meetings.
On Friday, Jan. 31, Department of Administration (DOA) officials issued the following update on the meeting:
“This meeting has been scheduled but is private and not a public meeting and will not have a quorum. And there are no plans to move it to Cut Bank.”
DOA further clarified, “This is not our meeting. It was at the request of Commissioner DesRosier. If more than one commissioner attends and we have a quorum we will not hold the meeting because it was not properly noticed and becomes a public meeting and violates open meeting laws…If the commissioners all want to come, they can. But the meeting will not happen. We are not denying anyone a meeting but will require any public meeting follows the statutory requirements. In this case, the time frame is too short to allow for notifying the public properly.”