DECATUR — City council members will have findings from an additional 2½ hours of public testimony to help them decide whether to allow a second ambulance company to make emergency response calls in Decatur.
Public hearing officer Steven Mahrt plans to file a report based on the testimony, which came from a total of 22 individuals during a hearing on the matter Wednesday at the Decatur Civic Center. Officials from Decatur’s two public hospitals took opposing sides, each bringing doctors, attorneys, hospital executives, ambulance directors and community leaders to support their cases.
Mahrt did not give a timeline for when he would submit his report, but his first findings were submitted to the city 11 days after the an initial hearing in August. The council will make the final decision.
HSHS St. Mary's Hospital argued that the city’s emergency needs are met by Decatur Ambulance Service, the longtime sole provider of emergency ambulance service in the city. The parent company of St. Mary’s, Hospital Sisters Health System, bought the ambulance company this summer.
Decatur Memorial Hospital representatives supported the application of Champaign-based Arrow Ambulance, which is affiliated with Carle Hospital, to become the city’s second provider.
The second hearing was requested by St. Mary’s officials after they disputed the findings of Mahrt's recommendation in August that there was indeed a reasonable need in the city for another emergency ambulance service. In that first hearing, nine of the 10 people who testified were supporters of the application, many of them the same representatives from Decatur Memorial Hospital and Arrow Ambulance who appeared again before Mahrt Wednesday night.
Interim City Manager Billy Tyus hired the public hearing officer to take his place in the proceedings to ensure transparency and a decision from a neutral party, he said last month.
At the core of the debate was twofold: Whether the city's residents were "reasonably and adequately" served by Decatur Ambulance Service and whether claims from DMH officials — that there were not enough ambulances in the area to move critically-injured patients to other facilities quickly — demonstrated a need for another ambulance company to move into the city's emergency response system.
"What we know and what others really know is that we do a good job, and we don't need additional help to service our community," said David Burkham, executive director of the Decatur Ambulance Service.
Arguing that there is additional need, DMH Chief Operating Officer Linda Fahey referred to a 2015 attempt from the Decatur Fire Department to bring online its own ambulance. At the time, city officials argued there were not enough ambulances operating 24/7 in Decatur. The plan fell through after residents argued to council members that the fire department would threaten the ability for DAS' business to remain viable.
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Representatives of both DMH and St. Mary’s were on record at the time as supporting additional ambulance service.
In July, Decatur Fire Chief Jeff Abbott told city council members in times of high volume, even the city's fire trucks can be stretched. From what he had seen, "as the way the number of EMS calls have escalated, there's definitely a need for more ambulances," he said.
While she said DMH had long seen a need for more ambulances, Fahey acknowledged in an interview with the Herald & Review that DMH began its search for an ambulance partner after HSHS acquired Decatur Ambulance Service this summer.
Decatur Ambulance Service has been the sole operator licensed to respond to emergency calls in the city for decades. Fahey stressed that there have been no problems with the service provided by Decatur Ambulance Service since the transition, and the push for another provider is not a criticism of the company or its paramedics.
"We believe we need all of them and more," she said.
Dr. Ted Clark, medical director of DMH's emergency department, cited several examples of patients with substantial injuries waiting for hours to get transferred to another facility. The most severe case Clark recalled was a patient who needed to go to an intensive care unit in St. Louis. Ultimately, he said, the St. Louis facility had an ambulance drive all the way to Decatur to pick up the patient, resulting in a wait time of some eight hours.
"Whether that is addressed specifically in the ordinance, that is a need, in my opinion, for the patients that we serve," he said.
St. Mary's officials argued that with a fleet of six ambulances operating 24/7, their coverage was in line with the amount of vehicles in other Central Illinois cities, and an internal review showed the average response time to urgent 911 calls had improved to 4 minutes and 46 seconds, with 90 percent of responses under the 8-minute response time required by city ordinance.
An attorney representing St. Mary's, Ed Flynn, stressed that DMH's concerns about wait times in transferring patients to other facilities do not fall under the purview of the city's license for ambulance service to 911 calls.
It’s unclear when the city council might consider the license application. Several city council members have refused to meet with either side in order to keep their decision restricted to the findings of the hearing officer, Councilwoman Lisa Gregory said at a September city council meeting.
"This has been a very different issue than what the council usually deals with," Gregory said. "I'd really just like the public to understand it's not that we don't want to talk to you about it, we are really taking the nature of a judicial role here."