By Richard Rourk

Less than 24 hours after MedicOne was to begin a new four-year contract that would run through 2023, MedicOne 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 Tuesday evening.

The announcement came after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for the April 3 issue, in which county officials discussed the beginning of the new contract on April 1.

In his email, Reeves also referenced updated requirements in the new contract as reasons for MedicOne opting out of the agreement.

“Currently, we are having significant difficulty in staffing the two ALS units we are obligated to provide, and under the proposed new arrangement which requires two ALS units, along with one BLS unit, we have an even greater concern with appropriate coverage,” Reeves said in the email. “This would not be an insurmountable task to complete if we had the ability to properly staff or the ability to hire new employees from the area, but with the ongoing statewide ambulance staffing crisis as well as the continuous negative media attention from the locals, it is proving to be near impossible.”

On Wednesday, Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas told The Erwin Record 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.

According to Thomas, MedicOne has agreed to remain in Unicoi County until the county has transitioned into another ambulance service. This commitment was made via email and verbally to both Thomas and Interim Unicoi County MedicOne Manager Stacy Wiggand.

“MedicOne will continue to do what it takes to provide ambulance service in the interim,” Thomas said. “They have been pulling paramedics from Nashville to come work here in Unicoi County, and will continue to do so. They have been meeting the new contract requirements since deciding to pull out.”

Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 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.”

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.

Thomas said that the next step is for the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to meet. A meeting of that committee has been set for Tuesday, April 9, at 11 a.m.

“We will have a special called meeting hopefully on Monday, April 15, with the full commission to discuss the future,” Unicoi County Commissioner and Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said.

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, 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.

It was decided during the March 25 Town of Erwin Mayor and Aldermen meeting that Vice Mayor Mark Lafever would represent the Town of Erwin on the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.

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.

“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.”