January 02, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

It took less than 20 minutes Wednesday for Union Countys commissioners to name the La Grande Fire Department as the ambulance service provider for the county.

But the brief public hearing followed months of conversation and negotiations between the current ambulance provider, Grande Ronde Hospital, and the city.

During the hearing, the commissioners heard no opposition to the citys taking over the service, although one person, Jay Vess of La Grande, questioned whether the city could operate the ambulance successfully without raising city taxes.

The ambulance has been operated by Grande Ronde Hospital for many years, but the hospital announced in October that it would end service Jan. 13. Hospital spokespeople have said restrictive billing regulations under Medicare and some private insurance companies have caused the ambulance to operate at a loss.

La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer has projected that, because of staffing and other cost sharing with the fire department, the city will be able to run the ambulance in the black.

Representatives from the city and the hospital met several times during the year to discuss a transition. The hospital is donating three fully-equipped ambulances to the city, and the city has said it will hire as many hospital paramedics as possible.

Weimer said Wednesday the city will not be ready to assume the service by Jan. 13, because of licensing procedures and requirements, but the hospital will continue to operate the ambulance until everything is in order. Hospital spokespeople have consistently said that the transition will be smooth, with no break in service.

The steps needed for a formal transition will begin immediately, Weimer said, although no transfer date has been set.

Ambulance service will continue to cover the entire county, collecting fees for use. Weimer said the basic fee will remain the same as it has been under hospital service.

La Grande City Manager Wes Hare has said that city taxes will not increase.