CARROLLTON, Mo. — Imagine calling 911 for help only to be told an ambulance isn’t available.
That’s the predicament for thousands living in one Missouri county, and a hospital’s attempts to solve the problem have been blocked so far.
Jeffrey Martin knows just how difficult it can be to get an ambulance in Carroll County. He was in the emergency room at Carroll County Memorial Hospital two months ago when doctors determined he needed emergency surgery because his appendix was about to burst.
“It was very scary,” Martin recalled.
The only surgeon available was 31 miles away at Ray County Memorial Hospital. Doctors in Carroll County called for an ambulance to transfer him.
“They just said there was none available,” said Martin, shaking his head in disbelief.
Carroll County Hospital’s CEO Jeff Tindle knew Martin’s life was at risk and wouldn’t give up. He gave him a ride to the other hospital in his personal car.
Tindle said the shortage of ambulances in the county has become disturbing.
“Any given day we don’t know whether there’s a crew available to transfer that patient,” Tindle said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it’s even gotten worse. Tindle said the ambulance service has refused to transfer patients with the virus, including those so desperately ill their best hope of survival is the ICU of a big city hospital. Carroll County doesn’t have an ICU.
“It’s gotten to the point that they are denying every transfer no matter what,” Tindle said.
So what’s up with the Carroll County Ambulance District? It’s a public agency funded with about $600,000 in taxpayer money each year.
Critics blame an incompetent board and an unpopular administrator who has fired staff and alienated so many others that he has trouble finding enough people to work for him.
“There were times when we only had one truck in the entire county,” said EMT Ethan Ralls, one of several employees dismissed by Carroll County who now works for an ambulance service in a different county.
The local hospital thought it had a solution to the problem. It bought its own ambulance. But then the ambulance board blocked the hospital from using it.
“To our surprise there is a statute that says if a licensed ambulance district exists no other ambulance can operate unless that ambulance district signs off on approval,” said an increasingly frustrated Tindle, who has tried to get approval repeatedly from the board.
But the ambulance board has cancelled where he’s on the agenda. Once it even met in a bus instead of a nearby meeting room in what some felt was an attempt to prevent the public from attending.
“Three, four-hour long meeting when you drove by you could see them with their cell phones and flashlights because they kept it dark,” said Ralls.
The last board meeting was held in a parking lot at 2 p.m., when most of the pubic would still be at work. When Tindle stepped up to the microphone to speak, the board president adjourned the meeting.
Tindle has even spoken to the governor’s office about granting an emergency use authorization for his hospital’s ambulance, but state officials are hoping the county can resolve the problem before that step is necessary.
It’s not looking good. Even the Carroll County Commission has tried to solve the problem.
“I’m saddened and sickened for our community that we have to go through this,” said Presiding Carroll County Commissioner Stan Falke.
The county commission told the ambulance district it would give it $60,000 in COVID relief money if it agreed to let the hospital temporarily operate an ambulance while there was a shortage.
Ambulance Director Mario DeFelice responded that “there will be no contract agreement with the hospital and no quid pro quo for government money.”
Then he wrote “don’t ever contact this office again,” said Falke. “So, I’d say that pretty much closes the door on future communication.”
To get answers, FOX4 Problem Solvers paid a visit to the Carroll County Ambulance District office. We found Director Mario DeFelice inside, but he refused to talk to us, adding that we did not have permission to walk into the building or record our visit. We pointed out to DeFelice that this was a public building funded with taxpayer money.
Problem Solvers also tried to speak to the ambulance board’s executive director, Caren Bittiker. She was sitting at her desk at the funeral home she operates when we drove up, but was gone less than a minute later when we stepped inside. When we asked to speak to her, we were told she wasn’t available.
It’s gotten so bad in this rural county that even Carrollton’s police chief has launched an investigation – as a private citizen since it’s not a criminal matter. Chief Chris Looney filed multiple open records request under the Missouri Sunshine Law for the ambulance district’s budget and payroll. So far, he said, he hasn’t received a single document.
“They deny ever receiving the Sunshine Law request,” Looney said. “In my experience as a law enforcement officer, individuals who aren’t the most forthcoming and aren’t transparent are usually trying to hide something.”
Carroll County’s former ambulance director, Dan Gawedzenski, who works as a paramedic in a neighboring county, started a recall petition for four members of the six-member ambulance board.
“I’ve already collected 500 signatures,” Gawedzenski said. “People are upset. They don’t feel safe.”
But the earliest a recall election could be held is April. In the meantime, the pandemic rages on and no one is sure whether an ambulance will be there to help.
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