Ambulance contract offer exchanges continue

Clay County Chancery Court Clerk Amy Berry and West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson discuss the latest in the ambulance service contract negotiations prior to Wednesday’s closed-door session.
Staff Writer

Back and forth negotiations continue between Clay County officials and administrators at North Mississippi Medical Center over ambulance service for West Point and Clay County.

The Clay County Board of Supervisors, West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson and Selectmen Leta Turner, Keith McBrayer and Jasper Pittman met with attorney John Crowell for almost an hour Wednesday for an update on the talks.

Crowell is representing the county in the contract discussions.

The meeting was held as part of executive session for the supervisors and the group would not disclose the topics other than to say no action was taken.

The two sides continue to exchange offers and counter offers that center on two main points — contract wording that insures two ambulances will be maintained in Clay County and not siphoned off for transports to Tupelo, and financial terms as to what the county will pay for the service.

The city and county previously have called the talks “positive” and “productive” but admit an agreement will take “some time.”

The last actual contract between the local governments was canceled by the county before the start of its budget year on Oct. 1, 2017.

North Mississippi Medical Center-West Point has continued to provide service since then, pending a new agreement.

The hospital’s parent company provides ambulance service to seven entities ranging from Tupelo and Lee County to Webster County.

When Clay County ended the agreement, it was paying $260,000 a year. One of the sticking points arose when county leaders discovered none of the other entities served by NMMC ambulances paid anything. That meant Clay County basically was covering the losses the ambulance service experienced across the seven services.

The issue over ambulance response times and ambulances having to come from other areas when Clay County’s two ambulances are pulled out of the county has simmered for 20 months. City and county officials started to push for a new contract or at least discussions late last year.

The issue jumped into the public spotlight in late January when a West Point man died following a two-car accident on Highway 50 East. It took almost 20 minutes for an ambulance to reach the scene because one was out of the county and the other was on another call.

While neither side will say so, some observers think the issue may be made more difficult because some of North Mississippi Medical Center’s facilities, including the West Point hospital, have appeared on widely publicized lists as being financially in trouble. While they stress it doesn’t mean “in any way they are going to go away,” the very mention of it “makes everyone think differently whether they say it or not,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions.

In February, a study by Navigant, a management consulting firm, had Mississippi at the top of a list of what it called a hospital crisis in rural America.

The list said the state had 31 rural hospitals at “high financial risk.” North Mississippi Medical Center’s operations in West Point, Eupora, Pontotoc and Iuka were on the list, which Navigate comprised by examining how much money they were bringing in, how much cash they had, and whether they had too much debt.

In NMMC’s case, the study did not factor in the four hospitals being part of a larger group that sometimes skews financial issues. But the issue isn’t uncommon in either Mississippi or across the nation. But the Navigate report and others also shouldn’t necessarily scare people but rather should force a discussion about solutions, experts say.

“I don’t think the report itself is the full story, but it certainly paints a picture of the struggle that our rural hospitals are having right now,” Ryan Kelly, executive director of the Mississippi Rural Health Association, said previously.