November 13, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The Grande Ronde Hospital board of directors voted unanimously Tuesday to give up ambulance service.

Union County residents wont be without an ambulance, however, because the City of La Grande is waiting in the wings to pick it up.

The final decision as to who will operate an ambulance is up to the county commissioners after the ambulance advisory committee makes a recommendation.

The hospitals formal letter to the county states that service will end Jan. 13, but President James Mattes said Tuesday the hospital will work closely with the city and its fire department to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible. Under the transition, there will not be a break in service, he said.

Although not obligated to award ambulance service to La Grande, the county is expected to do so. No other applicants have come forward, and the citys fire chief, Bruce Weimer, has said his department is ready to take on the service.

Tom Johnson, administrator for the state office of public health systems, said Tuesday the county does not need to ask for requests for proposals but has the authority to award service to a qualified agency, such as the city.

If the county says, This meets our criteria of adequately serving the county, thats fine with us, Johnson said. The county has the overall responsibility to see that adequate services are provided, but it is not required to ask for RFPs.

Talks about transferring ambulance service from the hospital to the city began last spring, and the hospital board has discussed the issue several times, said board chairman Denny Swanger.

Saying he is confident and optimistic about the ambulances future under the citys guidance, Swanger said, It was a difficult and lengthy process. The board spent hours looking at the data; talking to a cross section of people; looking at the total picture. Was it a difficult decision? No questions about that.

Mattes said that as late as Monday night he wasnt sure exactly how the board would vote.

It (the process) was completely objective, he said. It was never a foregone conclusion.

City Manager Wes Hare, who has said several times he would like to see the city operate an ambulance, said Tuesday he is grateful for the opportunity.

We look forward to running the service, he said.

The hospital will donate three fully equipped ambulances to the city and will work with the city to have paramedics trained daily in the emergency room.

As hospital employees, ambulance paramedics have helped staff the emergency room, and Mattes said the hospital wants to continue the policy of having city paramedics in the emergency room. Hare said that he supports that idea.

We want to work cooperatively with the hospital, Hare said. That relationship is strong, and we want well trained paramedics.

Swanger said the present and future financial picture of the hospital played a major role in the boards decision to give up ambulance service.

Its been operating in the red, Swanger said. Its not the only department operating in the red, but it is the only department we can release and have the same level of services.