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Mercy Flights wants air ambulance protocol rule eliminated

Mercy Flights is suing to overturn a controversial local rule mandating which air ambulance service will be summoned in an emergency.

The directive, issued in February by Dr. Martin Hill, the Josephine County emergency services medical director, upset the old order by calling for the closest air ambulance in the area to be summoned in an emergency.

Mercy Flights, which has been the Rogue Valley's main air ambulance provider for more than 60 years, maintains that its 1,300 subscribers in the county should be allowed to chose Mercy Flights as their provider, if they wish.

The Medford-based company filed suit Monday in Josephine County Circuit Court against the Oregon Medical Board and Dr. Hill, who oversees aspects of emergency medical services in the county.

Mercy Flights maintains that the Oregon Health Authority, and not the Oregon Medical Board, has regulatory authority over "coordination of ambulances" and that Hill thus has exceeded his authority.

"Because Hill does not have the authority to promulgate the policy and procedure, this court should declare it void," the company argued in its filing.

Hill did not return a call for comment for this story.

The lawsuit stems from a flap that began when a would-be competitor called Oregon Lifeguard set up shop at the Grants Pass Airport. Oregon Lifeguard's arrival created a dilemma about which company was first in line, prompting Hill in February to order that the closest service be summoned by 911 dispatchers. That meant Oregon Lifeguard, based in the county, would almost always get the call.

Amid the flap, Oregon Lifeguard in April suddenly announced it was pulling out of Josephine County and relocating to Tillamook. The company declined to elaborate on the surprise move, although officials did say business locally was slack.

Mercy Flights sells subscriptions for its services. If a subscribing member uses services, fees can be waived.

Earlier this year, nearly 1,300 county residents were subscribers, according to the company.

Mercy Flights board Chairman Mike Burrill Jr. said Wednesday he is not aware of any other competitors looking to move into the county and that his company intended to have Hill's order voided even if Oregon Lifeguard remained.

The goal of the lawsuit, he said, is to allow subscribers to use Mercy Flights, instead of a competitor.

"Mercy Flights is concerned the change in the standard denies our members access to our services," he said.

Air ambulances typically are helicopters, but also can be fixed-wing aircraft. Mercy Flights provides helicopter, fixed-wing aircraft and ground ambulance service.