Morrow County Health District Sues County, Boardman Fire & Rescue

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A Morrow County Health District ambulance rolls through the parade July 30, 2022, during the Irrigon Watermelon Festival. The district on May 10, 2023, filed a lawsuit seeking more than $4 million from Morrow County and the Boardman Fire Rescue District and to prevent the formation of a competing ambulance service district. (Photo courtesy of Morrow County Health District)

The Morrow County Health District is suing Morrow County and the fire district in Boardman for more than $4 million, claiming the pair of local governments are jeopardizing public safety and breaking the law to create a new special district for ambulance services in Boardman.

Attorney Troy S. Bundy with the Portland firm of Hart Wagner filed the 20-page pleading May 10 in Morrow County Circuit Court on behalf of the health district.

Morrow County on Tuesday, May 16, issued a public statement in response to this latest move in the dispute about ambulance service that states in part: “The complaints and allegations are baseless and inflammatory, misrepresent the process and actions to the public and seek to prevent the Board of Commissioners from exercising its obligations.”

The East Oregonian tried to contact Mike Hughes, chief of the Boardman Fire Rescue District, but he has yet to respond. The fire district on its Facebook page referred to the county’s response.

Court records show neither the county nor the fire district have filed a legal response.

The lawsuit contends freshman Morrow County Commissioner Jeff Wenholz, who also serves on the Good Shepherd Health Care System Board of Trustees, has been public about Good Shepherd’s intent to provide health care services in Boardman. Hughes also serves as the board chair of Columbia River Health, the health care clinic in Boardman. Wenholz and Hughes have discussed for some time, according to the pleading, the creation of a new health district and ambulance service to work with Good Shepherd, serving only Boardman and not the balance of Morrow County residents.

The complaint states agreements in the county assign ambulance services only to the Morrow County Health District, but that has not stopped Boardman Fire Rescue and Hughes for the last two years from attempting to take over the ambulance service “for the purpose of obtaining more funding and depleting the funding being used to satisfy the financial burdens of running the health district.”

The fire district “has been engaged in a series of activities principally aimed at disrupting the emergency medical services” the health district provides, the lawsuit states, and has worked to undermine the public trust in the health district.

“Those activities have been so extreme and unsafe, they have resulted in the submission of numerous ethics complaints to the Oregon Health Authority that are currently under investigation,” according to the document.

The lawsuit makes several accusations against the fire district, including “racing to emergency scenes in an effort to ‘arrive first’ on scene, stealing medications and medical supply stock from MCHD ambulances, blocking MCHD ambulances on scene with its vehicles in an attempt to impede MCHD access to patients in need of emergency care, operating without an active supervising physician, acting without appropriate protocols in place, refusing to hand over care of patients after the arrival of MCHD ambulance crew in violation of Morrow County ordinance, actively arguing about care with MCHD personnel in front of patients receiving that care, bullying and attempting to intimidate female MCHD emergency personnel as they are providing emergency medical care, and commandeering an MCHD ambulance or otherwise failing to exit the ambulance when directed to do so, all of which have created an imminent risk of harm to Morrow County residents and others.”

The lawsuit asserts Oregon law provides that no county is allowed to have two special districts performing the same services unless the territory is withdrawn.

Morrow County countered it is responsible for ambulance service areas and plans and for appointing ambulance service providers.

According to the county, Oregon Revised Statutes 198.720(2) provides that a district may not include territory within another district formed under the same principal act. Different sections of Oregon law governed the formation of the health and fire districts, according to the county, thus Oregon law does not prohibit the county board of commissioners from deciding if the fire district can provide ambulance services.

The health district’s pleasing also claims it provides ambulance service to Morrow County residents at a net financial loss of approximately $1.7 million. A new Boardman ambulance district would add another $1 million to that loss and “jeopardize MCHD’s ability to continue providing ambulance services to the rest of its service area residents and visitors within Morrow County because it will lose its ability to bill out at what is known as ‘cost-based reimbursement’ through Medicare.”

The county in its statement contends the 1995 intergovernmental agreement between Morrow County and MCHD transferred ambulances and related equipment to the health district to provide ambulance services throughout the county.

“It was an asset transfer agreement,” according to the county, “not an exclusive grant of a franchise to provide ambulance services indefinitely.”

The lawsuit asks the court to require the county to pay approximately $3 million for the losses it will incur if there is a breach of contract, plus $100,000 in the future loss of revenue to Pioneer Memorial Hospital, which the district operates in Heppner. The lawsuit also seeks more than $1.1 million from the county for the health distinct “undertaking additional investment in the ambulance service and hiring additional staff pursuant to the contracts.”

In addition, the Morrow County Health District asks the court to bar the Boardman Fire Rescue District from pursuing ambulance services in the county and seeks an injunction to block the county from forming the new special district.

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