Richmond Ambulance Authority MVP threatens to walk

A long-simmering political battle for the leadership of the Richmond Ambulance Authority’s governing board threatens to lead to the departure of one of the organization’s most valuable employees.

A long-simmering political battle for the leadership of the Richmond Ambulance Authority’s governing board threatens to lead to the departure of one of the organization’s most valuable employees.

Dr. Joseph Ornato, the Authority’s chief medical officer is roundly acknowledged for almost single-handedly elevating Richmond’s EMS (emergency medical services) to a world-renown organization in response times and pioneering of new critical care techniques. Last week, responding to the possibility of a change in the Authority board’s chairmanship, Ornato threatened to quit, says board member Terone Green.

Green says Ornato’s threat came last Thursday while Green was in the VCU Emergency Room to see his mother-in-law. She had been in a serious interstate accident and had been rushed to VCU. Ornato, who also oversees the VCU ER, met with Green in a family lounge to discuss his mother-in law’s condition.

“Just to break the tension, I asked, ‘So how do you think things went yesterday?’ ” says Green, referring to a meeting of the Ambulance Authority they both attended the day before. “It shocked me (when Ornato) went into a tirade.”

During the meeting, board members got tied up on a vote to decide whether to elect Green as the new chairman or to keep the current chairman, Joseph P. McMenamin. The 5-to-5 deadlock is likely to return in a later vote, with Green already having requested a second vote on the chairmanship be placed on the next meeting agenda.

“(Ornato) threatened to quit the board if anything changes,” Greens says. “He specifically told me that if McMenamin is not the chair, he is resigning.”

Ornato did not return calls for comment. His contract with the Authority was renewed in April.

Green says he has since discussed the conversation with other board members and members of City Council, but he declined to say with whom. It is Council that appoints members of the authority.

McMenamin says the matter is a non-issue, and defends the appropriateness of Ornato holding public opinions on matters before the authority board.

“Number one, I understand the vote to have been taken,” McMenamin says, referring to the chairmanship vote. “Number two, why would it be not permissible … why would it be otherwise objectionable for the medical director of an organization to hold an opinion?”

In the past, Green has been critical of McMenamin’s leadership, calling into question whether the Richmond attorney, who is a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm, might have a conflict of interest since his firm is representing a health insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, in an ongoing suit related to a billing dispute against the Richmond Ambulance Authority.

McMenamin has defended his leadership, responding to past media inquiries about potential conflicts by insisting he recuses himself from all conversations within his firm or the authority related to the suit.

Regardless, McMenamin stands to profit from his firm’s representation of Anthem, Green says, and “ … the appearance of a conflict is a conflict. I have questioned it.”

The court decided in April in favor of the Ambulance Authority, but Anthem’s claim remains on appeal.

McMenamin has been chairman of the Ambulance Authority for 15 years and once served as an emergency room doctor.

Whether McMenamin or Ornato believe a staffer with the Ambulance Authority should voice an opinion that could sway a duly appointed governing body is of key concern to Green. He says Ornato’s promise to quit if a future vote removed McMenamin as chairman was just that: an inappropriate effort to influence decisions of the board.

And it is an effort that could have a ripple effect on other matters to be decided by the board, he says, if they come to fear that an important staffer like Ornato might quit if he finds fault with the board’s decisions on policy.

“I don’t mind people giving me their opinion, but this went beyond opinion to threat,” Green says. “Is he threatening to resign if we don’t vote a certain way?”

McMenamin said Ornato’s potential loss to the Ambulance Authority is to be avoided.

“My impression is Dr. Ornato is not a bluffer, and so I take what he says with the utmost seriousness,” McMenamin said. “Reading between the lines, speaking only for my interpretation of what I have heard he said, I would interpret it to mean that Dr. Ornato would not care to work in a system where political influences have an inappropriately significant impact on how the system operates.”

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Chris Dovi

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