Howard Regional Health System averages only 45 to 50 ambulance runs a year to the northeastern corner of Howard County, and St. Joseph Hospital only had a handful of runs there last year.

Yet, which hospital will gain control of the area garnered a lot of attention in 2005.

County commissioners voted to change established ambulance boundaries in October, including switching control of the sparsely populated northeastern area from Howard Regional to St. Joseph Hospital.

In response, Howard officials threatened to appeal the vote and refuse to hold the county harmless in the event of an emergency.

Now discussions are taking place with the goal of settling the disagreement before St. Joseph’s provisional territory expires in July.

Emergency services teams on both sides met for the first time this past week with the goal of streamlining data collection methods to see, once and for all, who is the fastest responder.

Hospital officials contend the debate is all in the name of safety.

James Alender, president and CEO of Howard Regional Health System, said hospital admissions are not an issue in determining boundaries.

He and the HRHS board of trustees were simply standing on the principle of providing the fastest response time, he said.

“Regardless of which hospital [responds faster], it doesn’t matter,” Alender said. “Obviously time is the issue. If we get there quicker, we can render services quicker.”

In fact, he said, he and the board are in favor of changes they believe were supported by data showing St. Joseph could respond more quickly.

St. Joseph president and CEO Darcy Burthay doesn’t completely agree with Howard’s official stance on the issue, but said she does agree the quickest responder should be given primary assignment to the area.

Still, Burthay said, she and her staff feel available dispatch data shows St. Joseph can respond to that segment of the county quicker.

Aside from official data, Burthay said she believes changing traffic patterns have led to quicker response times from St. Joseph.

And she said she believes her staff supported the right decision.

“Our ambulance providers knew we had quicker response times,” she said.

The next six months will be a key time for officials from both sides, and dispatch representatives, to sort through data and come up with a final answer.

Lori Melton, Howard’s director of critical care and emergency services, said teams discussed preliminary ground rules.

Even the smallest of details, such as selecting a centralized clock for timing, are integral to the success of the trials.

A representative from dispatch also was present, Melton said.

Melton said she feels the biggest problem is the unpredictable nature of emergency calls and how that may affect data.

“I can’t predict where the calls come from,” she said. “We may go six months and not get 10 calls in that area.”

Alender said much of Howard’s staff is still confident in numbers presented to commissioners earlier in the year.

Their data, however, was not accepted, he said, and that is where the debate stems from.

“[St. Joseph] had different data than we had,” Alender said. “We just know from a geographical standpoint we could make the runs faster.”

Burthay said she hopes to see an agreement as quickly as possible.

“This has kind of been an ongoing issue,” Burthay said. “In this scenario, [negotiation] is the best solution for the community.”

The teams will meet again in two weeks to iron out the plan, she said, after which monthly meetings will be held to process small batches of data.

A final determination will hopefully be drawn near the end of July, when the provisional period expires, she said.

Amber Riggin may be reached at (765) 854-6740 or via e-mail at amber.riggin@kokomotribune.com

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