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Morrow County Health District sues to block ambulance competition

The lawsuit follows three years of tension with the Boardman fire district
Morrow County Health District ambulances in northeastern Oregon. | COURTESY MORROW COUNTY HEALTH DISTRICT
May 16, 2023

In an unusual move, the Morrow County Health District filed a lawsuit against the Morrow County government and a local fire department. It claims the two government agencies are violating the law and undermining residents’ care in an effort to create a new special district for ambulance services in Boardman.

The Morrow County Health District is a special district that operates Pioneer Memorial Hospital and several clinics in the northeastern Oregon county.

The suit, filed May 11, claims that in an effort to get more funding for itself, the fire district has been trying to take over a portion of the ambulance service the health district provides.

The lawsuit claims the fire district has purposefully tried to disrupt the health district’s emergency medical services, engaging in activities that “have been so extreme and unsafe, they have resulted in the submission of numerous ethics complaints to the Oregon Health Authority.”

Portland law firm Hart Wagner LLP filed the 20-page suit that recaps events of the past three years, detailing how health district leadership and the fire district have clashed repeatedly, both privately and in public.

Boardman Fire Chief Michael Hughes, who is named in the lawsuit, declined to comment, instead referring The Lund Report to the lawyer representing the fire district, Jack Caynon. In an email, Caynon also declined to comment other than to say the suit is “still being evaluated.”

Asked about the suit, Morrow County Emergency Manager Paul Gray said he had hoped the two sides would act like “adults” and negotiate collaboratively rather than go to the courts.

The suit makes a number of allegations, including that:

  • The fire district and Morrow County commissioners are revisiting the county’s state-approved ambulance services plan to allow the fire district to set up a competing special district that would work with Good Shepherd Health Care, based in neighboring Umatilla County.

  • Boardman fire officials made false statements in an effort to undermine the health district’s reputation.

  • Boardman applied for an ambulance service license last year that the state rejected over alleged misstatements.

  • The fire district bought two ambulances last year “despite not having an ambulance license.”

  • In April 2023, the Morrow County Board of Commissioners said they were redrawing the ambulance district boundaries to allow the fire district ambulances to serve Boardman while dismissing the advice of their attorney.

The suit also claims the Boardman fire district is unlawfully responding to emergency calls and interfering with health district ambulance crews. The ways the district does this include: “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.” 

These activities, the suit says, “have created an imminent risk of harm to Morrow County residents and others.”

The suit also claims that a new Boardman ambulance district would effectively eliminate the health district’s “cost-based” reimbursements from Medicare, meaning the health district would lose $1 million per year on top of the $1.7 million that it already loses on ambulance services as part of its mission to provide for the health of the county.

This, the suit states, would “place at risk those health services provided to other residents outside of Boardman.”

The tensions between the two agencies have divided local residents. One Boardman resident, Theresa Repak, told The Lund Report that after looking at underlying documents, she has concluded the district is manipulating and “cherry-picking” information.

Emily Roberts, the health district's CEO, however, said it's the Boardman effort that lacks basis.  She called it “remarkable that it's progressed so aggressively for the last two years despite there being no legal basis for them to be able to take over the ambulance service area.”

The suit seeks damages as well as a court injunction to halt the new special district.

​​You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.