Once again, the City of Hoquiam has terminated a contract to provide emergency medical treatment and ambulance service to Fire District 8, serving Pacific Beach and Moclips.
According to City Administrator Brian Shay, the city ended the agreement after learning that the current contract was signed under fraudulent circumstances.
Fire District 8 will provide basic ambulance service to the area.
The dispute between the city and the fire district stretches back to last summer, when the City of Hoquiam terminated EMS service to Fire District 8 and two other rural fire districts — Fire District 16 and Fire District 17 — after the districts racked up a combined $50,786 in debt.
At the urging of citizens and public health officials, the city continued to provide ambulance service to the three districts while the two parties worked out payment plans.
Fire District 8 paid off its $15,446 debt in its entirety in July.
“It seems to me that this district is the most put-together, that they don’t have any financial troubles at all,” Shay said.
Eventually, the other two districts worked out payment plans with the City of Hoquiam, and the city drew up new contracts for the three districts that replicated the former contracts.
The Fire District 8 contact mandates that the fire district pay the city $419 each time a Hoquiam Fire Department ambulance transports a patient from somewhere in Fire District 8.
The contract also mandates that the district pay the city $262 each time a Hoquiam Fire Department ambulance meets the district near Copalis Crossing and transports the patient the rest of the way. Fire District 8 Chief John Collum said this scenario is common in cases of more serious medical emergencies, such as cardiac arrest, because Hoquiam crews are certified to perform advanced life support, while Fire District 8 crews are only licensed to perform basic life support.
Shay said he sent a hard copy of the contract in the mail to the Fire District 8 commissioners, expecting them to sign and return it. Two of the three commissioners, James Hatten and Merch DeGrasse, signed the contracts on Nov. 14 and mailed them back to the city.
Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney and Finance Director Mike Folkers then signed the contracts, and the agreement was approved at a Nov. 25 Hoquiam City Council meeting.
What city officials failed to notice, however, was a paragraph added at the bottom of the first page of the two-page contact, exempting the district from making payments if the City of Hoquiam receives any money from the patient.
“PROVIDED FURTHER that if a patient is billed for service by Hoquiam and Hoquiam is paid any amount of the bill no fee will be assigned to the District, if no patient or patient’s agent payment is made with in 120 days then the District will pay the assigned fee as applicable in this paragraph. If payment is received after the billing date for that quarter the fees paid by the District will be credited back to the district in the next billing cycle,” the paragraph reads.
The City of Hoquiam only discovered it after city officials noticed they weren’t receiving proper payments, Shay said. He contacted Collum, who told Shay that the district would be paying bills according to the new contract.
Shay said the Fire District 8 chief and commissioners didn’t notify the city that any changes had been made to the contract. City officials thought the commissioners had signed and returned an original copy of the contract.
“If you look at it, they basically replicated our entire document,”Shay said. “The heading is the same, everything is the same except that one paragraph.”
Shay said Collum admitted to trying to trick city officials with the contract during a March 19 phone conversation.
But both Collum and Hatten said they weren’t trying to deceive the city — they were just trying to negotiate a more fair contract.
“We were simply responding to a contract negotiation,” Collum said. “In a negotiation, there are two sides.”
“When they got the contract, they should have read it,” Hatten added.
Both said that it’s unfair for the City of Hoquiam to collect fees from the district in addition to transport fees from the patient.
“We just don’t feel that it’s fair that they get paid twice,” Collum said.
When the Hoquiam ambulances drive to Fire District 8 to pick up a patient, the Hoquiam Fire Department has to call in two additional EMTs to cover the city, Shay said. So when the district needs assistance, the cost to the city is greater than just the cost of transport.
The fee charged to the district is intended to make up that cost, Shay said.
“We have this same agreement with the other districts, and it seems to be working fine,” Shay said.
The City of Hoquiam also provides ambulance service to Taholah and fire districts 4, 6, 10, 16 and 17.
Collum said he feels like Hoquiam officials are trying to bully the district, and that the original contract was unfair.
“We need them and they don’t need us,” Collum said. “And I think they’re trying to use that as a hammer to come down on us.”