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Utica wins legal battle over ambulance service

By JOLEEN FERRIS

UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - The five-year legal battle is over, at least for now.

The City of Utica has won its appeal in the Appellate Division in Rochester. That means the city's ambulance service, run by the Utica Fire Department, can continue to operate.

The 12-page decision came down Thursday. Basically, the court found that the state and regional EMS Councils failed to apply the strong presumption required by statute in favor of the city's application for a certificate of need to operate its ambulance service.

The decision took six months. Normally, decisions from the Appellate Division take about six weeks. No one at the Albany firm who argued the case for the city can remember a case in that court ever taking this long-and they have been litigating there for 40 years.

Officials with the City of Utica say it was worth the wait to be able to run the ambulance service without the dark cloud of litigation hanging over it.

The city began its ambulance service with a two-year operating certificate back in August 2005, and a few years later in December 2008, the city filed a "Certificate of Need" application.

In February 2009, the regional EMS Council, or, 'Remsco' denied the city's application. The following month, the city appealed and more legal wrangling ensued over the next two years.

The city was granted a stay in July 2011, allowing their ambulance service to stay in operation during the appeal process.

In November 2011, there was a hearing at the Appellate Division, with a decision made Thursday, May 10 that allowed the city to operate the service.

Every Thursday for the past six months has brought a mix of anxiety and indigestion for many city officials because all they knew was that this decision would come on a Thursday.

City leaders held a news conference Thursday afternoon at Fire Station 7 in Oneida Square. Fire Chief Russell Brooks said the end to a five year legal battle has done wonders for the morale of city EMTs at Utica Fire Department, who staff the ambulance. The dark cloud of uncertainty hanging overhead, threatening its very existence, is gone. While the ambulance service does bring the city nearly $2 million toward this year's city budget, money, by law, can not be the motivating factor for a municipality to begin an ambulance service.

Chief Brooks says it was always about quality of care and that city EMTs went on medical calls, but before the ambulance service, did not transport patients, so they did not see them through to the hospital.

"Now when we go on these calls, there's a continuity of care," Chief Brooks said. "We're not handing the person over, we see it right through to the emergency room and that positively impacts mortality rates and morbidity rates."

Kunkel Ambulance is an interested party in the State Health Department lawsuit to stop the city ambulance service.

"The decision rendered by the Appellate Division was split," said Catherine Kunkel, Executive Vice President of Kunkel Ambulance. "The decision was against litigation the City of Utica posed against the New York State Department of Health and its EMS affiliates. The split decision enables an appeal. We are now convening with our attorneys to discuss the appeal process."

The State Health Department did not respond to inquiries regarding whether or not they would pursue an appeal. The fact that the decision was a 3-2 split means there can be an appeal.

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