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Mission ambulance team temporarily without their ride

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ST. IGNATIUS – It was a lucky few hours on Thursday for the Mission Valley Ambulance Service despite an unlucky situation.

“We didn’t have any calls in that time,” Gwen Couture, Mission Valley Ambulance director, said of the few hours the team didn’t have the use of an ambulance to respond to emergencies, although they quickly solved the problem.

The issue started when the ambulance service was notified by letter that the town of St. Ignatius would no longer provide them with insurance. Without insurance, the ambulances couldn’t be used.

“We had no time to prepare,” Couture said. “We didn’t know what we were going to do.”

The situation started on Tuesday during an open city council meeting when council members voted to take the ambulance service off the town’s policy.

“We don’t want to see the town not have an ambulance,” Mayor Charley Gariepy said in a phone interview. “But we needed to protect the town.”

The council voted to discontinue insurance on the ambulance service after the town’s attorney, James Lapotka, was asked by the council to research the policy and he discovered a problem.

“The ambulance (service) is not part of our local government and because of that it’s not possible to have them on our insurance,” he said.

Lapotka said if the ambulance was involved in a wreck or something else happened, the insurance company could decide not to cover the cost because the service is not part of the town’s government. How much coverage the service actually had was questionable.

Mayor Gariepy said the issue hadn’t been considered in the past because the ambulances were put under the town’s name so they were considered part of town government.

The new ambulance purchased this year is under the ambulance service name and the question of liability was considered, which lead to the discovery that non-government agencies on the policy might be questioned.

“If something happened, the town and the council could be liable if the insurance company didn’t cover it,” he said. “The town can’t afford to be sued.”

Lapotka said this is an unfortunate situation.

“The town council and myself appreciate the good work the Mission Ambulance does and we want to continue the relationship,” he said.

The ambulance service rents a garage next to the police station and behind the St. Ignatius Town Hall from the town. Lapotka and council members hope that relationship continues.

After the crew spent a few nail biting hours trying to figure out how to solve the problem, another ambulance service stepped up to help.

“Tim Brester of Polson Ronan Ambulance Service is donating an ambulance for us to use,” Couture said. “He also added our crew to his professional insurance policy. If he hadn’t stepped up, people would have to wait for an ambulance from Missoula or Ronan.”

For now, the Mission crew will be responding to emergencies in an ambulance with Polson Ambulance painted on the side.

“We are able to provide care to our community because of the generosity and kindness of our friends and neighbors,” she said.

The Mission Ambulance service is looking into insurance coverage for their ambulances, but it’s expensive.

“We need coverage we can afford,” said Christa Umphrey, emergency responder.

The ambulance service paid for their insurance policy with the town for several dozen years but it was made affordable through a company that specializes in coverage for government agencies called Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority.

“We are looking into multiple options,” Couture said. Not a lot of insurance companies in western Montana will insure an ambulance service. She said the county and the state are aware of the problem and are helping to discuss solutions.

“We are doing everything we can,” Couture said.

This problem has a ripple effect.

“This puts a huge burden on the rest of the county,” Couture said. “Now, we only have one ambulance to respond to emergencies and we’ve always had two. Now, Plains, Ronan, and Arlee will have to share that burden. The whole county will feel this.”

One ambulance holds one serious patient.

“If we have two calls at the same time or multiple people injured, we will need support,” she said.

The Mission Ambulance responds to about 400 calls a year, but that call volume isn’t enough to support an independent service like Polson and Ronan.

“This is all volunteer,” Umphrey said.

The newest ambulance was paid for with two decades of fundraising efforts in the community, which makes it even more difficult to leave it in the garage for now until another insurance policy can be found.

“I want to really stress that the town is supportive and we’ve worked well for the past 40 years,” Couture said. “And while we are considering our options, the crew is still responding to calls.”

Mayor Gariepy invites people to attend the council meetings to comment on this issue. Valley Journal November 9, 2016 - 5

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