By Brad Hicks
The late musician Frank Zappa is credited with having said “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
The recent norm for MedicOne Medical Response, according to county officials, has been its continued failure to meet the obligations outlined in its contract with Unicoi County. Because of the company’s inability to remain in compliance, local officials have met numerous times over the past several months to discuss MedicOne’s future in Unicoi County and explore the feasibility of establishing a county-operated ambulance service.
But Jimmy Erwin, recently hired to serve as MedicOne’s operations manager for Unicoi County, said recent changes have led to much progress in the past couple of weeks. And county officials, impressed by what they heard Monday, have opted to hold off on any action concerning the status of MedicOne’s contract.
The Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee on Monday, Feb. 27, heard from Erwin, who provided an update on steps the county’s current ambulance services provider has recently taken to meet to its contractual obligations and other moves on the horizon.
“We’ve not stopped and, in two more weeks, we’ll have more done,” Erwin said.
The purpose of Monday’s meeting was for the Ambulance Committee to make a recommendation to the full Unicoi County Commission – slated to meet later in the evening – on the action it should take relative to MedicOne’s contract. Possible actions could have included voting to give the company more time to meet its obligations or moving forward with the establishment of a county-run service.
On Feb. 10, the county sent a letter to MedicOne outlining issues local officials have expressed exist with its local operations. MedicOne quickly responded with a letter of its own, in which the company outlined the steps it has taken or intends to take to comply with its contract.
MedicOne on Feb. 14 announced it had hired Erwin to serve as operations manager for its Unicoi County operation. Erwin, a 17-year veteran of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, completed his tenure with the sheriff’s department on Friday.
Erwin told members of the Ambulance Committee he is committed to bringing local operations back into contractual compliance.
“MedicOne was in total violation,” Erwin told the Ambulance Committee. “That’s one of the reasons why I took the job on the 10th. Unicoi County residents deserve better than what they are getting from the service.
“MedicOne is a very large corporation, and they have the capability to provide everything that was required in the contract and even more and, as the operations manager for Unicoi County, I’ll see that they provide what’s required by the contract, and it’s my goal to exceed the contract,” Erwin continued.
Erwin said the two deficiencies most often pointed out by county officials were the local available ambulances in the county and a lack of personnel to work on the ambulances.
Erwin said since he was hired by MedicOne on Feb. 10, the company has worked on hiring two additional paramedics, adding the local part-time staff has become more active which has allowed MedicOne to cover its shifts. Erwin said since he was brought onboard, there has not been a need for an ambulance service provider from outside Unicoi County to enter its boundaries for patient transports.
“And we have not had a call since where an ambulance wasn’t available,” Erwin added.
Erwin said the staffing shortage remains an issue, but it is being addressed. He said MedicOne intends to bring up one of its paramedics staffed in the Memphis area to work in Unicoi County, adding another paramedic brought in from the Morristown area will complete training this week to begin working from the ambulances. He said the company has also received six more applications, and MedicOne officials hope to begin the interview process soon. The goal, Erwin said, a couple of additional paramedics hired within the coming weeks.
The county’s most recent contract with MedicOne requires that four ambulance trucks be stationed in the county, but Erwin said there were only two in the county when he was hired. Erwin told the Ambulance Committee that since his hire, MedicOne has brought one of trucks up from Nashville and repairs on another have been completed, bringing the local fleet back up to the required four.
Per the contract, two ambulances are to be available locally 24 hours per day and a third truck is to run during times of peak call volumes. In the past week, MedicOne has begun running this third day truck as needed, Erwin said.
“We’re going to run it Monday, Wednesday and Friday and see if we can’t get the call volume up to our non-convalescent calls,” Erwin said.
MedicOne plans to purchase a new truck in March, and Erwin said this new truck will allow the company to drop its oldest ambulance from the local fleet.
Along with a new ambulance, MedicOne has also located a new base for its local operations, Erwin said. He said the company has acquired property at 1501 N. Main Ave. – located just off Exit 36 and directly across from the former Wendy’s restaurant and property previously purchased by MedicOne to construct a new station. This former residence will serve as MedicOne’s local office, crew living quarters and supply house.
Erwin said the company is looking at putting up some “yard barns” to house its ambulances and keep them out of the elements.
Erwin said MedicOne hopes to be in the new station within the next two weeks.
Per MedicOne’s current contract with Unicoi County, the company was to construct a centralized station within one mile of Exit 36. But, since that contract took effect in April 2015, the company has maintained its local base of operations on property owned by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch. Crews have recently been stationed at a local motel.
Erwin said the new base should also aid in personnel recruitment.
“Right now, with the living conditions, office conditions, it’s been really hard to get anything done,” Erwin said. “The last thing we want to do is bring someone into the old house where we are right now. After about another week, week-and-a-half, we’ll have everything moved and the employees can be proud of what they’ve got. And when we bring someone in and show them what we’ve got to offer, they’ll be more apt to come work for us and provide service for the county.”
Commissioner Gene Wilson suggested that the county’s Building and Grounds Committee soon meet to explore the county purchasing land for an ambulance station, adding the property could be used for this purpose whether the county retains the services of MedicOne or decides to start its own service.
Erwin said communications have also been an issue in the past, but he intends to solve this by sending weekly correspondence to members of the Unicoi County Commission to let them know how things are going and of any issues that may arise.
Erwin also commended the work put in by current MedicOne employees, who he said have continued to work through “rough” and uncertain conditions and have been of the “utmost help” in turning the situation around.
“MedicOne will continue to meet the contract and provide the service for the people,” Erwin said.
Commissioner Jason Harris, who chairs the Ambulance Committee, was among those present during the committee’s meeting who expressed gratitude for Erwin’s efforts. Harris said it sounded like much has been accomplished in a short time.
“I’d just like to say I appreciate what you’ve done,” Harris said to Erwin. “If we had done this less than two years ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
But Harris said county officials must continue to keep an eye on the future. He said Unicoi County cannot allow any lapses in MedicOne’s service to continue as it has in the past.
“I still think we need to be looking at the future on the ambulance service, what we’re going to do two years from now when this contract’s out,” Harris said. “So I think the (Unicoi County Ambulance Study Task Force) needs to still meet occasionally to be looking at if we’re still going to be moving forward or what they city’s going to do or looking at a building. We just need to still be looking at the future.”
The Ambulance Committee recommended tabling any action concerning MedicOne’s contract, opting instead to meet again in around 30 days to see where the company stands with regards to its relocation, the hiring of additional paramedics, and to discuss any additional progress. The full County Commission voted to follow this recommendation.
“I think we’re back on track now with what we signed up for two years ago,” Wilson said.
During Monday’s meeting of the full County Commission, Erwin apologized on behalf of MedicOne for the deficiencies while reiterating such issues will be a thing of the past.
“From here on out, we will meet and exceed the contract with Unicoi County,” Erwin said. “The people and citizens of Unicoi County come first, and we’re going to do what’s right for Unicoi County.”
Following Monday’s Ambulance Committee meeting, Erwin said the committee’s course of action was the one he had hoped for.
“Everything kind of went the way I was hoping,” he said. “I wanted to show the County Commission that MedicOne does care about the county. With the inability to meet the contract needs, MedicOne it seems like has been the bad person in all this. There’s been a lot of issues. There’s no one person to blame, there’s just been a lot of things that’s happened.”
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Meanwhile, the Town of Erwin is pursuing steps to establish its own ambulance service. During its Feb. 13 meeting, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a resolution authorizing Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley to request up to $300,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for the 2017 for the purpose of establishing an ambulance service.
During Monday’s meeting of the Erwin BMA, Hensley announced the number of surveys required as part of the grant application have been completed and the grant application has been submitted.
Erwin said he has not yet spoken with officials with the Town of Erwin, but he said MedicOne will work with the town whether it chooses to continue its interlocal agreement with the county that extends ambulance services to the town or the town opts to strike out on its own.
“We want to let them know that we are going to meet the contract needs that’s with the county, and we’re going to fill the need for the city, too,” Erwin said. “If they continue to go, we hope we can work with them whichever way we can in a positive manner.”
MedicOne has served as Unicoi County’s ambulance services provider since 2011 when its initial contract was approved by the Unicoi County Commission.
As the April 2015 expiration of this contract approached, county officials began meeting to discuss the company’s future in the county, with some officials expressing concern that the county could no longer afford the company’s $180,000 annual subsidy.
In January 2015, the Ambulance Committee recommended putting the county’s ambulance services contract back out for bid. MedicOne was the only company to submit a bid by the February 2015 deadline, with the company seeking a $132,000 yearly subsidy from the county. This bid was later approved, and a new four-year contract with MedicOne took effect on April 1, 2015.