Fort Smith Emergency Medical Services board members say a lawsuit filed earlier this month against it by both Sparks Regional Medical Center and Mercy Fort Smith contains several inaccuracies.

Mercy and Sparks jointly filed suit against Fort Smith EMS on June 8 in Sebastian County Circuit Court claiming among other things the ambulance service’s board had not been appointed by Mercy or Sparks and that Fort Smith EMS was “essentially subsidized” by the two hospitals.

The lawsuit also claims concerns by the director of the state Medical Trauma System over the “time it takes to transfer trauma patients to the appropriate care venue.”

Tim Hearn, executive director of Fort Smith EMS and a former Mercy employee, said the trauma transfer issue was about transfers to out-of-town facilities if neither Sparks nor Mercy could tend to a patient.

Dr. James Bledsoe, director of the state Medical Trauma System, had only contacted the leadership at Sparks and Mercy about the out-of-town transfers, not Fort Smith EMS, both Hearn and Fort Smith EMS Board Chair Jeff Beauchamp said. Bledsoe did not return a call for comment Friday.

Beauchamp, appointed by Sparks in 2004, said Fort Smith EMS bills each hospital for services rendered upon the hospital’s request, and the EMS service receives no other monetary support because it is privately funded through medical billings of patients.

“There are a lot of inaccuracies in the suit,” said Galen Hunter, a Fort Smith EMS board member appointed by Sparks in 1999.

“This is not about performance, because our performance is good; it’s about money,” Hearn said. “Mercy wants to control Fort Smith EMS. They control EMS services in Springfield, Benton County and in Oklahoma.”

Beauchamp said although the Fort Smith EMS board members have been appointed and approved by the hospital’s board of directors, they vote on “what is best for the patient” more than what is best for an individual hospital.

Central to the lawsuit claim is an allegation by Mercy and Sparks that Fort Smith EMS uses “balance billing,” or rounding up on a charge. Hunter said Fort Smith does not use balance billing. During an effort to obtain access to Fort Smith’s bookkeeping, lawyers for Mercy and Sparks at Kutak Rock claim they discovered the Fort Smith EMS 2013 amended bylaws no longer required it to have “members” and the request to see the books by Mercy and Sparks was declined.

2013 By-Laws Amendment

Also at issue is a 2013 amendment to the Fort Smith EMS by-laws to align it with the Arkansas Non Profit Corporation Act of 1993.

The lawsuit by Mercy and Sparks claims neither hospital knew about a 2013 amendment to Fort Smith EMS by-laws to update that no longer required it to have “members.” The amendment was advised by attorney Ben Shipley, a former Fort Smith EMS board member in the 1990s who coincidentally recently rolled off the Mercy Health Fort Smith Communities Board as chairman on June 30.

Shipley would not provide a comment for this article about the by-laws. Mark Moll, the attorney representing Fort Smith EMS, was unavilable for comment Friday.

"The 2013 By-Laws are in stark contrast to the 99 By-Laws in a number of regards, one being that the 2013 By-Laws purportedly removed Mercy and Sparks from their respective positions as members of EMS," the lawsuit by Mercy and Sparks states.

Mercy and Sparks had not been removed as members by the adoption of the by-laws, which were accepted unanimously by the Fort Smith EMS board, the lawsuit concedes.

“It wasn’t news to them,” Hearn said of the 2013 amended by-laws. “It was 5-year-old news. They knew all about it. Both Sparks’ and Mercy’s chief operating officers were there. They had no objections.”

Hearn and Beauchamp said the chief operating officers representing Sparks and Mercy during the 2013 amendment process were Jeremy Drinkwitz for Sparks and Jennifer Thomas for Mercy. Drinkwitz had “HMA” attached to Sparks’ title in the by-laws, Beauchamp said.

Drinkwitz moved from Fort Smith to Missouri last year when he became COO of Mercy Hospital Joplin.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas was named a member of a new EMS board set up in early June “as a result of the dispute” between Fort Smith EMS, Mercy and Sparks about obtaining access to billing records. Dan McKay, outgoing Sparks CEO, was also named to that new EMS board, along with Mercy Vice President of Finance Greta Wilcher, Mercy Fort Smith President Ryan Gehrig, and Brandon Bullard, the interim CEO of Sparks following McKay’s departure next week.

Sparks was acquired by Community Health Services in 2014 and appointed McKay as CEO. McKay announced June 21 he had taken a job as CEO of a hospital group in Kentucky. His last day at Sparks is July 15.

The original Fort Smith EMS by-laws called for three board members to be appointed by each Fort Smith hospital for six voting members. Three board members who were appointed by Sparks remain: Beauchamp, Hunter and James Green. Two from Mercy Fort Smith remain: Bruce Crabtree and Robert Langston. One Fort Smith EMS board member, Dennis Bauer of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, was appointed by the board after another board member resigned. All Fort Smith EMS board members are named co-defendants in the lawsuit.

Beauchamp said the Fort Smith EMS board’s votes are unanimous “95 percent of the time.” The board meets quarterly.

The five-year statute of limitations ended shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Beauchamp noted.

Hearn pointed out Fort Smith EMS has resources such as an AirEvac Lifeline helicopter and an airplane operated by Pafford and is adding another ambulance in August for out-of-town transfers.

Sparks and Mercy's statement

Regarding the lawsuit against Fort Smith EMS, Sparks and Mercy released the following statement Thursday:

“As the two hospitals in the Fort Smith community, Mercy and Sparks have an obligation to ensure that those we serve receive the highest quality medical services possible. To help carry this out, Sparks and Mercy have provided substantial financial assistance to support Fort Smith Emergency Medical Services (EMS) since jointly establishing it in 1978.

In 2017, Sparks and Mercy were contacted by Dr. James Bledsoe, director of the Arkansas Department of Health’s trauma system. Dr. Bledsoe expressed concerns about the length of time it takes for trauma patients needing immediate treatment not available in Fort Smith to be transferred from either of the two hospitals. Mercy and Sparks emphasize that the frontline staff of Fort Smith EMS are dedicated servants of the community and provide exceptional service. Unfortunately, discussions with Fort Smith EMS leadership have not provided an effective response to the concerns of the stakeholders of Fort Smith EMS, including those identified by Dr. Bledsoe.

These concerns, as well as others, coupled with our ongoing financial support, led Sparks and Mercy to examine the governance of Fort Smith EMS. It was determined that the bylaws and board structure currently being used by Fort Smith EMS were inappropriately adopted in an effort to shift oversight away from Mercy and Sparks. As the original corporate members of Fort Smith EMS, Mercy and Sparks seek to regain oversight of the EMS board. Our goal is to ensure that our community is appropriately served by this important resource.”