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Ambulance service search begins – again

By Richard Rourk

During a Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting on April 9, officials decided that all options are on the table in regards to the future of ambulance service for the county.

The county is at a crossroads and two options were discussed, including starting a county-run service. The committee also discussed sending out a wider scope for request for information (RFI) and request for proposals (RFP) to bid the services out.

The new search began last week as less than 24 hours after MedicOne was to begin a new four-year contract that would run through 2023, the company’s CEO Jim Reeves announced that the ambulance service would be pulling out of its contract with Unicoi County.

“Due to incessant local media attacks on MedicOne Medical Response, as well as recent citizen litigation against the county, we are not only unable to keep existing employees working, we are unable to effectively recruit and hire new employees to backfill those staffing loses, a recurring problem we have been working diligently to solve,” Reeves stated in an email sent to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely and Unicoi County commissioners on April 2 after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for the April 3 issue.

Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely released the following statement:

“Last night, we received an email notice that MedicOne Medical Response was withdrawing from consideration for the contract to provide ambulance service to the citizens of Unicoi County. They respectfully requested that we seek another service provider. MedicOne committed to providing service until the County Commission can take action to secure another provider. The commission will be meeting and moving forward with the process as quickly as possible. We have a mutual aid agreement with the other county services to provide backup support for services.”

Also on Wednesday, Evely told The Erwin Record that the move was “unexpected.”

“It was unexpected to me, but they (MedicOne) are going to provide service while the commissioners find a new provider,” Evely said. “We also have mutual aid with adjoining counties if we need help.”

Evely said he hopes the county can find a quality ambulance service in a timely manner.

“We will move as quickly as possible to rectify the situation,” Evely said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas told The Erwin Record last week that officials are working to address the situation.

“The county commission is committed to working with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to provide an adequate ambulance service to our citizens, no matter who the provider is, whether it is another private provider or a county-run service,” Thomas said.

Unicoi County Commissioner and Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said he is confident that the county will work with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to find a solution.

“We will get through this and, hopefully, we will be better for it,” Mosley said. “I am reaching out to the Town of Erwin and (Unicoi County Commissioner) Jamie Harris is reaching out to the Town of Unicoi to get feedback.”

Also on Wednesday, April 3, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley responded to MedicOne’s decision.

“I hope the county will be diligent in rebidding for the service and I’m pleased to know that we will be involved in the selection process,” Hensley said.

Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch also responded to the news on Wednesday, April 3.

“It’s unfortunate and hopefully we can work something out going forward,” Lynch said.

John Day, the former Unicoi County mayoral candidate who recently filed a lawsuit against the county over the MedicOne ambulance contract, also responded to the news last week.

“It’s a good day for Unicoi County residents and the current MedicOne employees working here,” Day said. “Both will benefit from a different, better managed, better equipped, and more financially stable ambulance service provider that has the depth of resources necessary to provide the highest level of service at the lowest cost.”

Local officials who expressed their concerns for the citizens of Unicoi County also expressed concerns for the employees of MedicOne and their future.

“There is such a shortage of paramedics, we are hoping that whoever we bring in will retain them,” Evely said. “I think it is of the utmost importance that whoever we negotiate with that the employees are discussed.”

Mayor Hensley agreed.

“Our best wishes go out to (MedicOne employees) and it’s a difficult time, but hopefully whoever the county selects as the next provider they will be needing paramedics,” Hensley said. “I feel certain those employees will be put back to work if they choose to.”

Mosley, who has been in contact with the employees of MedicOne, told The Erwin Record they are devastated by the company’s decision.

“This is the eighth change some of them have faced,” Mosley said. “They risk losing vacation, overtime and benefits, and it is a terrible situation they are in.”

Despite all of the uncertainty, Mosley said he was impressed with the strength and dedication of the employees.

“This will tell you a little bit about the people down there – they are willing to stick it out and to serve this county; it’s a great group down there,” Mosley said. “I had one medic tell me that if he had to come here with his personal equipment and sit in his car with his scanner, he would do it just to serve this county.”

On Tuesday, April 9, The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee held a meeting to discuss options for ambulance service in Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley was joined by committee members Glenn White, Marie Rice, Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch and Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever. The committee was joined by fellow Unicoi County commissioners Loren Thomas, Jamie Harris, Jason Harris, Stephen Hendrix, Matthew Rice and Todd Wilcox. Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, Unicoi County Hospital Administrator Eric Carroll, Town of Unicoi aldermen Doug Hopson and Jeff Linville and Unicoi County Mayor Evely also attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Interim Unicoi County MedicOne Manager Stacy Wigand, Johnson City/Washington County Emergency Services Chief Dan Wheely and Emergency Medical Services Consultant John Dabbs were also on hand during the April 9 meeting.

Mosley called the meeting to order right at 11 a.m.

“It’s unfortunate that MedicOne has pulled out, but now we have to move on,” Mosley said.

Mosley inquired about MedicOne’s commitment to serve Unicoi County until the county has a replacement to which Wigand responded.

“According to corporate, that is the plan,” Wigand said.

Wigand acknowledged that staffing has been a struggle.

“I know they don’t want to hire new employees, so if employees leave to go somewhere else, MedicOne will not be filling those positions,” Wigand said.

If MedicOne was to pull out completely, Unicoi County got some reassurance that Washington County could help out. Wheely offered to speak to the Washington County Emergency Services Board.

“I feel we would have a desire to help in the short term, but if we are talking several months then we would require an interlocal agreement,” Wheely said. “Again, I can’t speak for the board, but I feel we would be willing to help as long as it doesn’t take away from Washington County residents.”

Mosley inquired about Washington County Emergency Services possibly leasing equipment and ambulances to Unicoi County.

“We have the vehicles and equipment but if the state inspects Unicoi County, you would need permits,” Wheely said.

Mosley then shifted to question Dabbs about how long it could take for permits.

“If paperwork and checks are cut, it could be done in a matter of days,” Dabbs said.

According to White, starting an ambulance service could be a viable solution.

“It looks like we would need to get three ambulances and hire the staff,” White said.

Wheely agreed.

“I think it’s that simple,” Wheely said.

Hensley addressed the committee to discuss the Town of Erwin purchasing ambulances with a $500,000 State Grant.

“The grant could purchase two new ambulances and a possible third ambulance for transport,” Hensley said.

Marie Rice acknowledged that Unicoi County still has $440,000 left over from the payment that Unicoi County received when Unicoi County Hospital was sold to Mountain State Health Alliance, which is now Ballad Health.

According to Hensley, there could also be up to $150,000 that can be used from the Hospital Foundation Funds to start an ambulance service.

Lafever said Tuesday that he would like to see something in writing.

“Before anyone starts a business, and this would be a business, there needs to be a solid business plan, but I’ve yet to see it,” Lafever said. “I’m not against starting our own services; we just need to get it right for the taxpayers.”

Jamie Harris agreed.

“We need an unbiased study done, then figure out our revenue and if it works, that is what we should do,” Harris said.

Wigand praised the staff of roughly 20-30 employees that serve Unicoi County.

“These employees are very loyal to Unicoi County,” Wigand said.

Wigand told the committee that it would cost a rough estimate of $1 million a year for employee’s salaries and benefits to run three ambulances 24 hours a day.

“My personal opinion, if the time was ever so present to start your own ambulance service, it’s now,” Wigand said.

Wheely suggested using a third party service for billing.

“I know we use Digitech for our billing,” Wheely said.

The alternative to starting a county-run ambulance service would be to send the services out for bid to outside agencies.

Mosley advised the committee to send out a larger net for RFIs.

“I suggest that we send out RFIs to local papers and regional papers, like Knoxville,” Mosley said. “I would also like to send them out to Atlanta and Charlotte, and for all municipalities to post on their websites.”

White made a motion to send out RFIs to the wider areas and Mosley seconded the motion. The committee voted unanimously to bring the matter to the special called Unicoi County Commission meeting on Monday, April 15, at 5 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse to be voted on by the full commission.

According to Mosley, if the commission votes to send out the RFIs, they will be sent out sometime next week.

“It can take around two weeks to hear back from the RFIs, then the commission must decide if we want to send out RFPs, and those can take another four weeks to get back,” Mosley said. “We want to be sure we get this right.”

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet again on Tuesday, April 16, at 2 p.m. in the conference room at the Unicoi County Courthouse.