Chesterton Tribune

County taxpayer subsidy for ambulance draws questions

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BY DOUG ELISH

Tension was high at Tuesday’s Porter County Commissioners meeting as Porter Health made its pitch for a new ambulance service contract with the county.

The issue wasn’t whether Porter, which has been the ambulance service provider for the county since 1988, has provided a good service, but what kind of tax subsidy, if any, the county should grant the now privately-owned company in a new contract.

After a lengthy PowerPoint presentation detailing Porter’s service and significant capital expenses, Porter CEO Jonahan Nalli and Director of Ambulance Services Gary Atherton didn’t reveal the exact figure the hospital was seeking after the current contract ends on Dec. 31, but seemed to suggest the subsidy return to the $1 million level that was contracted in the previous seven-year deal.

The actual amount of the current subsidy is half of that, $500,000, because Porter Heath agreed to the lower amount in 2004 to help the county cope with funding issues after the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel in 2004.

In the presentation, the two also revealed that the numbers of calls the hospital service has responded to has been decreasing significantly since 2007. In 2007, Porter responded to 9,217 calls, while that number has dropped to an estimated 6,301 this year.

The area of the county for Porter to cover has also decreased as several areas in the county now run their own ambulance services. Those areas include Portage, unincorporated Portage Township, Ogden Dunes, Center Township and part of Lake of the Four Seasons.

The county commissioners appeared to welcome the hospital’s proposal as board president John Evans said the nearly 25-year partnership has been good for both parties. He acknowledged the high cost, but also noted the importance of the quality of the service.

“Porter has provided a great service to the county, it’s not a county hospital anymore though,” Evans said. “If we want to do business with them we have to realize they are a private entity.”

The tension arose when two county council members brought up their concerns with simply signing another contract at that level of cost to the county.

Councilmen Jim Biggs and Jim Polarek both questioned whether a $1 million dollar subsidy to Porter is truly the best option for the county.

Polarek suggested a county-wide meeting between all the municipalities and ambulance services to figure out the best way to provide quality coverage, an idea that Evans met with skepticism.

Biggs, in a series of exchanges with Evans and the hospital representatives, requested that the hospital release its monetary figures concerning their ambulance service, including what they charge patients and how much they make in profits, to see if it is something the county truly needs to subsidize.

“Maybe I was too flippant but I’m just tired of asking questions that I should have the answers to without asking,” Biggs said. “My No. 1 concern is to make sure we are getting what we are paying for.

We live in a very competitive environment right now. Whether it’s selling pencils or ambulance service, companies are willing to do something different to get your business.

“Why is it a forgone conclusion that the hospital is going to do this?”

Biggs acknowledged that the service Porter has provided has been strong and has served the county well. He stressed that his concern is whether the hospital truly needs such a large subsidy to provide the service and wants to explore other options that could benefit the taxpayers.

He said it’s possible that another company could provide a similar service at a lower cost or that the county could develop a system using its municipal ambulance services to serve the entire county.

“If it turns out (Porter) is the smartest option, they have been operating at a loss, then I will be the first to stand up and say ‘thank you,’” Biggs said. “But until that is proven, I am going to keep asking questions. We are cheating the taxpayers if we don’t take a hard look at it. Everything around us is changing. Why wouldn’t we take a good look at this? We can’t just keep doing the same things because we’ve been doing them since 1988.”

 

Posted 8/17/2011