County gives Tonasket Medical Services bid to Lifeline

North Valley Hospital not given chance to respond to questions


“Lifeline pulled out of running Tonasket EMS over ten years ago because it was not viable as a for-profit, private business. They just pulled out, and we were left hanging.”

Leilani Kilpatrick,EMT

Tonasket EMS District

OKANOGAN – Okanogan County Commissioners Jim DeTro, Sheila Kennedy and Ray Campbell awarded the bid for ambulance services in Tonasket to Lifeline last Friday (June 17).

Lifeline, a private, for-profit business was chosen over North Valley Hospital, who also put in a bid to take over providing ambulance services after Tonasket EMS EMTs were notified May 25 of their impending job losses.

The move puts 15 Tonasket EMTs with at least 189 years experience between them, out of work as of June 30.

“At least four of the EMTs who lost their jobs have over twenty years experience each, working locally,” said Jackie Daniels, an EMT with over eight years experience.

Five of the EMTs, including Daniels, began working shifts for Tonasket EMS when Oroville EMS was sold to Lifeline last August.

“We will be getting the shaft twice,” said Daniels.

Tonasket EMS Director Wendy Burks said she was called into the first of several executive session (closed to the public) meetings with commissioners Detro, Kennedy and Campbell and Okanogan County Planning and Development Director Perry Huston April 10, where she was informed of the commissioners’ decision to privatize the service.

“The county commissioners made several comments in executive sessions with me that privatizing it would be what would be ‘best for the district’ and that ‘Lifeline was doing a great job in Oroville,’” said Burks. “We all got our walking papers May 25, and the commissioners put out the Request for Qualifications two and a half weeks ago. The decision had already been made; we were already dismissed. They awarded the contract to Lifeline within half an hour of opening the two bids.”

Tonasket EMT Lisa Bordwell, who worked as an EMT for Oroville for 22 years before starting with Tonasket ten months ago, was at the June 17 meeting with the commissioners, along with Wayne Walker, manager of Lifeline.

“In my estimation it was a pretty snap decision. The meeting started about 4:10 p.m. and I left at 5:15 p.m. and that’s how much time they took to review it and make their decision,” said Bordwell. “There’s a lot of things hanging in the balance in that decision, and they didn’t give it any time. I was almost dumbfounded something so important to our community can be made by our commissioners in an hour or less. The feeling I got was they just didn’t want to be bothered with it; they felt they had other more important things coming up on their agenda. I was absolutely amazed.”

“The commissioners asked for qualifications, but I don’t feel the county commissioners are qualified in running an EMS agency to compare the two agencies who filled out the Request for Qualifications. I do not believe they did their homework or their research. I feel they had their minds made up prior to opening the bids,” said Leilani Kilpatrick, an EMT with 22 years experience serving locally. “The Department of Health had no idea this was going on. It just seems like it was done in the dark.”

“I feel a little in the dark about what is going on,” said Dr. Douglas Wilson of Confluence Health. “The county deserves a fantastic EMS system, and probably deserves more discussion about this to explore options. It may be they’ve (commissioners) done the right thing. I just don’t know. There’s an opportunity here for the different organizations doing health care in the county to sit down and talk about what it takes to provide the best care, and it is disconcerting if we are missing an opportunity to discuss this.”

“I was so sad that Tonasket EMS was going out to bid. Then when I learned the hospital was bidding and we could keep our agency in our town, I was so excited. Our community would have so many opportunities for cross training and integrated services,” said Tonasket EMS EMT Elizabeth Phares, who is also a Firefighter/EMT with Nespelem Fire and Rescue and a recent addition to the Tonasket Fire Department. “I trained in Prosser, where they have a similarly integrated hospital/EMS service. The precedence is already set, and there are many models to follow.”

Phares said she takes advantage of the opportunity to do “hands on learning” at NVH while studying to be a respiratory therapist. She said before former Tonasket EMS Director Micheal Greene passed away, discussions were taking place to develop a closer relationship with integrated training between the hospital and Tonasket EMS.

“The ER doctors and staff were all ready, and talking about training with us and working more closely together. Then when Mike died, it all got put on hold. Mike was also working on stationing a shared paramedic between Oroville and Tonasket. He was dedicated to developing and enriching the training for EMTs in our community. When Mike passed we lost that resource,” said Phares. “It was amazing when the hospital board and CEO stepped up and offered to support us. It seemed like we were again going to have new learning opportunities. With Lifeline coming in, that will all be gone. Even if they hire a few EMTs, they will all be junior and have to work up the seniority ladder. Starting pay for an EMT with Lifeline is minimum wage. I can’t afford to work for so little.”

Burks said her biggest fear was for all the crew members who will be out of work.

“We are a group of individuals who are more than just co workers; we are family that are dedicated to our town and our district and we go above and beyond,” said Burks. “For a major event, we can get out three ambulances fully staffed; and have done so in recent months on multiple occasions. Now we have fifteen people that will be out of work. Even if Lifeline were to pick up some of my crew members, they won’t be full time positions, and most of these crew members have been dedicated to the Tonasket community for years. These are people who have been trained and working hard at this one skill in this community. My crew has been dismissed; now where do they go? None of us are working at what we love anymore. I missed my daughters graduation because I was on an emergency call. And now I am out of a job.”

“Our anticipation is we will definitely have to hire some additional staff, and we are very open to anyone who has been employed with or worked as a volunteer with Tonasket EMS,” said Walker. “We would like to keep as many of them who have been servicing that area up there but we would have to put them through our training process. We have already received some applications from folks in the Tonasket area, so we are fairly confident we would be able to hire at least a percentage of those folks from the local area.”

Julie Tyus said she and her daughter Baylie Tyus both worked with the Tonasket EMTs after getting their state certification.

“Since I’m a teacher, I can work as a fourth crew member in a patient care role, and also as a driver as the third crew member. I believe that Lifeline puts only two on each shift, whereas Tonasket EMS employs three and sometimes a fourth,” said Julie Tyus. “It’s not that Lifeline doesn’t care or that they have bad skills. Tonasket EMS has a small army of capable, talented and trained heroes who have impressed me with every call I see. They are irreplaceable in my opinion.”

“A lot of us rely on this job, and there are a lot of people who would prefer to see us on their doorsteps than Lifeline,” said Daniels. “It just blows me away they spent less than an hour looking at the bids, and decided to hand it to Lifeline. Basically they opened up the bids and ran through them and said, ‘Well we don’t know how the hospital would handle this.’ Originally they said they weren’t going to make a decision on Friday (June 17). But there were going to be people out of town with the commissioners’ office, so they had to rush it through.”

The Okanogan County Commissioners did not respond to phone calls or questions emailed to them from the Gazette-Tribune June 10, and again on June 20.

“To be honest, I am glad the commissioners did it that way. It shows corruption within the county and shows it was a preemptive decision where the commissioners did not serve due diligence,” said Chris Allen, a Tonasket EMT and owner/founder of North Star Medic. “The commissioners tipped their hand by making a decision within five minutes of opening those bids. Washington State Department of Health was never notified that the commissioners were putting this out to bid, which is required by state law. All the ambulance agencies in the north central region answer to one medical program director, and he did not know it was going out to bid.”

Medical Program Director Dr. Larry Smith did not respond to a phone call prior to the Gazette-Tribune going to press.

“We have asked North Valley Hospital for support in asking the commissioners for a reconsideration,” said Allen. “If the hospital gets it, it will be a huge savings of monies. The way we have it now, we have proven we can staff all three ambulances at a moment’s notice. It becomes a self-sustaining revenue for the community.”

“I am sympathetic to the attitude that North Valley Hospital should fight the decision. When I think of all the health care needs of people of this region, EMS services are critical,” said Dr. Wilson. This happened kind of fast.”

NVH CEO Mike Zwicker did not respond before going to press.Walker said Lifeline would begin talking about the terms of the contract with Huston.

“We will use the Oroville contract as a framework for the starting points of the Tonasket contract,” said Walker. “We don’t have an official start date as of right now, but Perry expressed they hoped to get this worked out ASAP.”

“They are not being forced to make a snap decision. The Tonasket EMS would stay the course until a decision was made. It’s not like the town would be left without coverage. The commissioners made these deadlines, not Tonasket EMS,” said Bordwell, adding, “One of the things in Lifeline’s bid that was not in the NVH bid was how long it would take to be up and running. They didn’t submit that information, and the commissioners said they couldn’t wait. They stated at the beginning the purpose for the meeting was to receive the proposals and begin reviewing them. Then they said Jim Detro was going to be gone, and they didn’t want to postpone making a decision. So all of a sudden there was a motion on the floor to enter into negotiations with Lifeline.”

When asked about bringing on a paramedic, Walker said he was “still trying to figure out what the best staffing matrix would be for that location in that area.”

“Right now all we have are preliminary numbers, and we’re trying to get better call data to know the real numbers. But we’re very confident we would become an advanced life support system,” said Walker. “We feel paramedic level of service will be a huge benefit of service up there, especially when you look at how far out some of these people are. They would be better off receiving that advanced care service at their doorstep than waiting until they get to the hospital.”

“I’ve worked with Lifeline, and they are trained and skilled, but no more so than we are,” said Kilpatrick. “I do trust Lifeline for patient care, yet they pulled out of running the Tonasket EMS over ten years ago because it was not viable as a for-profit, private business. And they gave only a few weeks notice. They just pulled out, and we were left hanging.”

Kilpatrick said she believed bringing on Lifeline would “almost triple the ambulance costs for the public. That’s what happens when you get a for-profit ambulance service.”

“I want people like Aero Methow, Bridgeport and Brewster Ambulance, Loomis Fire and Rescue and Aeneas Fire and Rescue to be very wary and watch their backs, because the county could be eyeing them for privatization. We were making a profit for the county, but now that will be going to a private, for-profit company,” said Kilpatrick, adding, “I want people to know this. The people need to be aware of who they are voting for in November.”