Life Support | Part 3: The longer wait for lifesaving care
SWEET SPRINGS - For years, if someone needed emergency medical attention anywhere between Columbia and Kansas City, there's a good chance they'd end up at I-70 Community Hospital. But since its closure in February, patients are now forced to find farther facilities, increasing the time it takes to receive potentially lifesaving care.
The facility, which once had 15 beds, closed after suspending its license in February 2019. After closing, the owning management firm EmpowerHMS filed bankruptcy for the hospital.
After years of having emergency care just a stone's throw away, Sweet Springs and area residents are having to adjust.
"Six months ago I fell outside my apartment, and I hit the brick, and it split my eye open," Sweet Springs resident Tawney Mayberry said.
Had the shuttered hospital been open, it would have taken her a matter of minutes to cross I-70 and get care. Instead, she had to drive to the next-nearest hospital in Marshall.
"If it hadn't been for my friend, I don't know that I could've drove there to Marshall," she said.
For medics at Sweet Springs Ambulance District, traveling farther to get patients emergency care means there sometimes aren't enough hours in the day.
"It's caused things to be a little bit more difficult," paramedic Joe Campbell said. "We could be back in service within a matter of minutes, versus now going to Fitzgibbon, which is our closest hospital, we're looking at about an hour."
After looking through the ambulance district's records from the months leading up to and following the hospital's closure, even Campbell's estimate looks optimistic.
In July 2018, the farthest month back KOMU received data for, the Sweet Springs Ambulance District responded to 47 calls. In total, they spent 92 hours, 32 minutes handling calls that month.
In June 2019, the most recent month KOMU received data for, the Sweet Springs Ambulance District responded to 38 calls -- 19.2 fewer than July 2018. In total, they spent 76 hours, 6 minutes handling calls -- 17.8 fewer hours than July 2018.
But, those numbers are a little misleading. For many of those calls, medics didn't end up transporting any patients. Sometimes they were able to treat patients on scene. Other times they were only dispatched to be on standby for sporting events. Some of the calls included patient transports from one hospital to another.
When comparing only the calls where medics transported patients from the scene of an emergency to a hospital for immediate emergency care, the numbers tell a different story.
In both July 2018 and June 2019, Sweet Springs medics made 17 such calls.
In July 2018, they spent an average of 1 hour, 30 minutes, per call, from the time they were dispatched to the time they dropped the patient at a hospital and were ready to answer new calls.
But in June 2019, that number increased to 2 hours, 5 minutes per call. That's a 39% increase in the amount of time it took medics to get patients to emergency medical care.
Although emergency transport times are on the increase, the lower number of total calls means something else is on the decrease.
"It's kind of affected our bottom line a little bit that we're not as busy as we were," Sweet Springs Ambulance District Board President Dennis Dohrman said.
While the district is primarily funded by tax money, that's not its only source of revenue. The other part comes from service fees charged to patients the district transports.
According to financial records obtained by KOMU, in 2018, the district made $309,032.16 from service fees. In 2019, it had only made $152,293.08 as of September.
If it continues at the same rate, the district is on track to make only $203,615 off service fees in 2019 -- about two-thirds of what it made in 2018.
"The ambulance district is solvent," Campbell said. "We will always be here. The ambulance district was here before they had a hospital."
Even though ambulance district leaders are confident the loss of the hospital won't put them under, the people of Sweet Springs are racing against the clock to revive their hospital.
A November meeting brought a crowd to the local American Legion to hear more about the Sweet Springs Ambulance District possibly buying the hospital. It could mean a tax of $8 to have the millions of dollars it would cost to get the doors open.
"We need the hospital here," Mayberry said. "They always say about that golden hour… if it's something critical. Luckily mine was just a cut over the eye."
For the full report, watch KOMU 8 News tonight at 10 p.m.