2018-02-28 / Front Page

Judge rules in favor of county ... for now

By TIM GULLA
Ledger Staff Writer

For now, at least, a Circuit Court judge has ruled Mary Black Health System - Gaffney must continue operating emergency ambulance services in Cherokee County — a service that could have ended on Thursday if an injunction sought by the county had not been granted.

Judge Keith Kelly’s ruling handed down Tuesday morning in Cherokee County’s dispute with the hospital over the future of EMS funding was far from one-sided, though. Cherokee County will have to pay $45,000 per month to the hospital — “specifically and solely” for use in providing EMS services — until the underlying legal questions are settled through mediation or at trial.

Judge Kelly indicated in his written order that he would be issuing a scheduling order that would address mandatory mediation and that a final hearing will be held 180 days from now if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

“The order shows that the court understands the issues expressed by both sides, has decided to fast track the case, to include mediation, and understands the financial plight of the hospital going forward with EMS services without assistance,” hospital spokeswoman Katherine Anlicker responded in writing to a request for comment on the judge’s ruling and its impact. “However, because of the early stage of this litigation process, he was concerned about the County’s ability to take over EMS service at this time. We look forward to working with the county on a long-term solution for EMS service.”

County attorney Joseph Mathis couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

The ruling comes as part of a dispute that’s been bubbling for several years.

Arguing it has been losing money — a claimed $200,000 per month — the hospital first approached the county seeking help with the costs of emergency ambulance services in March 2016, according to court documents. The hospital currently pays $960,000 per year to its contracted EMS services providers but claims even that isn’t enough to cover the high costs of the service.

On Dec 7, the hospital informed the county of its intent to terminate hospital funding for EMS services and it gave the county very few options. Either the service would end on March 1 or the county could extend EMS service until June by paying $45,000 per month from March through May to help cover losses and take over the service entirely beginning June 1.

The county responded by insisting Mary Black abide by a 1984 agreement that required a former owner of the hospital, and all subsequent owners, to provide county-wide emergency services.

On Jan. 23, in a pre-emptive strike, the hospital filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgement that it was not bound by these old agreements, which it argued were “perpetual” agreements frowned upon in South Carolina law, and that it had a right to cancel them with reasonable notice.

The hospital’s lawsuit prompted Cherokee County on Feb. 16 to ask the court for an injunction, arguing “it will suffer immediate, irreparable harm” and that there would be an “imminent danger of death and other harm” as a result of the hospital’s “refusal to honor its contractual obligation to Cherokee County.”

In addition to a temporary injunction requiring the hospital to maintain the service, the county also was asking the court to declare that the hospital was bound by agreements signed by its predecessors in the 1980s.

The two sides squared off for an injunction hearing last Thursday afternoon in Spartanburg County Court, where Judge Kelly was presiding.

In his ruling, the judge agreed the county has established there would be irreparable harm if EMS services were ended and that the county had no adequate remedy at law “as money alone will not solve the exigent problem.”

Even if the county loses the legal battle, an attorney for the county argued at the injunction hearing, it would take time to enact ordinances and enter in contracts.

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