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Okla. Ambulance Service in Fight for Life

OOLOGAH, Okla. -- Utility customers in a section of Rogers County could be looking at an extra fee to keep their struggling ambulance service provider viable.

Oologah-Talala Emergency Medical Services is partnering with the Collinsville-based Verdigris Valley Electrical Cooperative in a program called "Seven Ready," which calls for a $7 utility bill assessment starting Jan. 1, said Brandi Pond, community liaison for O-TEMS.

"It's so bad that if we don't get this program up and running and people don't participate at a certain rate, we're really looking at shutting the doors," Pond said.

O-TEMS serves the Oologah-Talala Public Schools district, which encompasses about 180 square miles. For the $7 monthly fee, residents will be spared out-of-pocket costs for an emergency ambulance transport, which typically ranges from $1,200 to $1,500, Pond said. People who opt out of the plan would bear the burden of the ride.

O-TEMS makes about 70 calls monthly, Pond said.

"Our call volume is just not high enough on emergency calls because we just don't have the population," she said. "We serve an area the size of Tulsa geographically, but the number of people is way less than that."

The ambulance provider is funded primarily through property taxes, but a 1976 state question (522) that set up emergency medical districts capped that assessment at 3 mills, Pond said. O-TEMS is seeking a participation rate of about 70 percent of the 1,600 households served by VVEC in the ambulance district, she said.

"Some people feel that (the property tax) is their membership," Pond said. "But that just isn't enough to keep us going. We don't have a hospital or a nursing home in our district. Nobody wants to come in and take it over because it's not going to make money."

Roughly 1,400 other O-TEMS customers are served by American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, which has told the ambulance provider that Corporation Commission regulations prohibit it from adding such a fee.

To that end, O-TEMS is working with the Oologah-based Rural Water District No. 4 on a separate partnership. O-TEMS was established about a decade ago because people were waiting more than 45 minutes with life-threatening emergencies, Pond said. But high fuel costs and decreasing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements have led to a drop in the ambulance pool, she said. Between 50 and 60 ambulance services have closed in the state since 2000, Pond said.

"I believe that it's really the citizens buying into the readiness of the community," she said of Seven Ready. "It's kind of like an insurance policy to ensure that when you pick up the phone to get an ambulance for somebody in your house, that ambulance is going to be there."

A town hall meeting on the program is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the community center in Oologah.

"Without the ambulance, all growth stops," said Rogers County Commissioner Mike Helm, who serves Oologah-based District 2. "With the ambulance the possibilities are endless."

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