Owensboro Health is pulling out of a backup ambulance service provider agreement it signed with the city of Owensboro and Daviess Fiscal Court more than 40 years ago. That could mean the region will be left without a secondary emergency medical transport service by as early as September.
It is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between local government and western Kentucky's largest health care institution. Last month, Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly threatened to file a "friendly lawsuit" over a series of backup service agreements that Fiscal Court, the Owensboro City Commission and Owensboro Health have signed in the past.
On Thursday, Mattingly said his position has not changed.
"All we're looking for is to say, 'Judge, one party says this and the other party says that; give us a declaratory judgment as to who is right and who is wrong, '" he said. "We want the interpretation of these letters that we have cited from day one. Are they valid or are they not?"
According to a letter the Messenger-Inquirer obtained on Thursday, however, Owensboro Health is abandoning a 1978 annual backup agreement that automatically renews itself every year unless any one or all of the parties in it decide to no longer participate. The agreement is set to expire on Sept. 18.
That letter, which the city and county both received earlier this week, is from Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP, a Louisville-based law firm representing the regional health care institution.
In it, commercial services partner Byron E. Leet states that a more recent Backup Ambulance Service Provider and Financial Service Agreement all three parties signed in 2008 is no longer in effect because it required that a takeover contingency plan be agreed to within one year's time. Since no plan was established, Leet writes, his client is honoring the 1978 agreement, which was entered into by its predecessor, Owensboro-Daviess County Hospital.
Even still, Leet stated that the terms of the 1978 agreement were not triggered by Yellow Ambulance's decision to discontinue services at the end of this month. The city and county have since contracted with American Medical Resources (AMR) and the 41-year-old contract between the city, county and OH only controls the parties' obligations "until the city and county solicit bids and award a new contract ... to an emergency ambulance service provider."
"Accordingly, there is no gap in coverage or period of time that the city and county will require ambulance service coverage between the Yellow and AMR contracts," Leet wrote. "Owensboro Health assumes no responsibility, after the effective date of the AMR agreement, to contribute toward any annual subsidy which the city and county agreed to bear and have been paying at least since 2018."
Mattingly has admonished Owensboro Health President and CEO Greg Strahan for not committing to pay all or even a portion of the $150,000 subsidy.
By abandoning the 1978 agreement altogether, OH may complicate the county's legal strategy for determining which, if any, of the agreements, still hold water. County Attorney Claud Porter told the Messenger-Inquirer that he has been in contact with a third-party law firm that the county could retain to file a friendly lawsuit.
City Manager Nate Pagan said he is concerned about the possibility that there may be no backup ambulance provider at all by mid-September, and he does not yet know what next steps the city and county may take.
"It’s hard for me to answer because we just got the letter this week," Pagan said. "We’ll have to do some legal analysis of whether their timeline is correct or whether any of these agreements are still in effect."
The city has not yet been formally approached about joining onto the county's friendly lawsuit, he added. Such a decision would require the city commission's approval. Mayor Tom Watson has said he would not favor legal action against Owensboro Health because it could hinder local government's relationship with the region's largest employer and only major hospital.
Owensboro Health issued a statement on Thursday afternoon that read: "Owensboro Health remains completely committed to engaging in any opportunities for positive dialogue about the future health care needs of our community and region."
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, email@example.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey