Rural health district seeks levy increase in general election

By Nathan Oster

Big Horn County Rural Health Care District No. 1 is asking voters in the Nov. 3 general election to support a tax increase that would allow it to re-establish its community automated external defibrillator program, fund additional paramedic/advanced life support personnel and fund continuing education for first responders. 

The rural health care district has provided these services in the past, according to board chairman Ken Nelson, but will be unable to do so moving forward because it greatly enhanced the quality of its ambulance services, which are provided by Cody Regional Health.

For 30 years, dating back to its formation in 1990, the rural health care district has been funded by property tax levy of two mills. Becky Lindsey, the Big Horn County treasurer, said those two mills will generate just under $182,000 "if 100 percent of the people pay their 2020 taxes."

If voters agree to increase it to four mills, the tax revenue going to the district would double to about $364,000.  The change would take effect for the 2021 tax year, she said.

Nelson said the rural health care board is very pleased with the service provided by Cody Regional Health.  He estimates that the ambulance gets called out "400 to 500" times a year to help patients in need across south Big Horn County.

When asked for the rationale behind the proposed levy increase, Nelson said, "because we have an elderly population, for one, and because we now have the availability of advanced cardiac life support with Cody Regional Health and their ambulance here through their paramedic services."

He added that the contact fee going to Cody Regional Health for this improved service is "eating up all of our rural health care funds," and that that it hasn't been able to fund its automated external defibrillator (AED) program, which distributes life-saving equipment around the district.

Nelson said a lot has changed since the days when Atwood Ambulance held the contract and would pay volunteers to respond to Basin, jump in an ambulance, go to the patient or patients and provide basic care.

"I certainly don't want to disparage the Atwood service at all because it was a good service," Nelson emphasized. "Things are just different now.  We have the ability to bring the ER to a patient's house — and we have a very elderly population, a relatively poor population and a population that generally doesn't want to go to a hospital if it can be avoided. We can do that now.  We couldn't before"

Nelson also emphasized that the approval of the tax-levy increase would help train first responders.

So what's it all going to cost?  According to Lindsey, the owner of a $120,000 house in Basin who now pays about $23 per year in taxes to the rural health care district would pay $46 if voters approve the proposed increase.  For the owner of a $260,000 house in Greybull, the annual cost would rise from about $49 to about $98.

Nelson said he and the board believe it's worth it to have an improved ambulance service.

"We're a long ways from anywhere and patients (transported by the ambulance) usually have to be transferred out of this hospital anyway," he said.  "With the ambulance service we have, we can bring a lot of advanced care to citizens in their homes.  I feel that's really important for elderly patients and trauma patients.

"The way it's been done in the county for years, just doesn't work anymore.  Volunteers can't do it themselves.  We need this to pass so we can keep our volunteers trained and continue advanced life support to residents' houses."

Nelson said that since Cody Regional Hospital upped its level of service, response times have dramatically improved.   Now an ambulance can reach Greybull in six to seven minutes, whereas before, it would take that long for first responders just to reach the ambulance in Basin.

When asked what would happen if the levy increase fails, Nelson said the rural health care district would likely need to go back to running a basic life support ambulance through Cody Regional Health.

"We wouldn't be able to maintain the 24/7 paramedic coverage we have now," he said.

At the same time, he said the rural health care district also places a high priority on continuing the AED program, which it has had to suspend.