By Kendal Groner
Discussions on how to resolve the inadequate ambulance service perceived by local officials in Unicoi County continued in the April 11 meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.
The committee further explored the possibility of creating a county-run ambulance service, placing the service back out for bid, and whether or not it would be prudent to find and purchase property where they can construct a building to house ambulances.
“I think everyone here agrees we need a good ambulance service,” said Jason Harris, Unicoi County commissioner and Ambulance Committee chairman.
Unsatisfactory service including reported long wait times and not enough ambulances with the county’s current contracted provider MedicOne, has prompted leaders throughout the county to explore either creating a service or finding another service for Unicoi County residents.
Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox said he investigated the number of times MedicOne has been unavailable and violated their contract, requiring Washington or Carter County ambulances to respond to Unicoi County calls.
“They’re still having violations … I called Washington County and got a copy of all the violations from 2017, and there’s 84 from Washington County, and I’m still waiting to hear from Carter County,” Wilcox said. “March 26 was the most recent violation.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said after speaking with the First Tennessee Development District, there is still a good possibility that Unicoi County could utilize the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was allocated to the Town of Erwin to purchase their own ambulances.
“They would have to have about two months worth of surveys to determine that,” Lynch said. “It’s kind of the same process in the county as there was in the city so they can justify us getting the ambulances. It sounds like it’s still doable.”
Lynch also stated that the county had received the letter for the bond from MedicOne, indicating the service seemed stable until the contract expires next April.
Harris said if the county plans to place out request for proposals to allow other ambulance services to place bids, he felt it needed to be sent out this month.
“The right choice if we’re going with the request for proposal is to get it out early … I just don’t know how we’re going to do a service on our own,” Wilcox said.
“I agree the request for proposal might be the best route for right now,” Lynch added.
The current contract the county has with MedicOne has been described as weak in terms of being able to hold the ambulance service provider accountable for violations of the contract.
After speaking with the county attorney about drafting a well-composed request for proposal, Lynch said they had concerns of including more specific language.
“We feel like the more language we have in there the less bids we are going to get and the higher they are going to be,” he said.
Harris suggested a contract that would allow the county to withhold a portion of any contracted company’s subsidy if there was unsatisfactory service or a contract violation.
Unicoi County commissioner and Ambulance Committee member Kenneth Garland said he felt a reliable ambulance service was the most important thing the commissioners could give to Unicoi County residents.
“We’re going to have to make a decision,” Garland said. “I’m for getting a piece of land and building a building for the ambulances, first thing.”
Garland said he would support borrowing money for the land if it was required and cautioned the committee to not wait for a grant they may not receive.
“We can’t sit around and wait for something we may not get,” Garland said. “A year passes by pretty fast.”
Wilcox said, with or without a building, he felt putting it back out for bid was the best option. He said he checked on Lifeguard ambulance service provider based out of Nashville and American Medical Response based out of Knoxville and received positive feedback on both companies.
“These are big established companies we should look into,” Wilcox said. “We need a vetting process to ensure we get something better this time around.”
Garland was concerned that placing the service back out for bid could land the county in the same position they are in currently with an unsatisfactory service.
“If you do your own service, you can bankrupt the county,” Wilcox responded.
Garland said he has never seen a contracted ambulance service perform well in Unicoi County during recent decades.
“MedicOne was a great service from 2010 to 2014, but it changed when their subsidy dropped from $180,000 a year to $132,000 a year,” said Loren Thomas, Unicoi County commissioner.
Garland said regardless of whether the county creates its own service or contracts it out, they should look for a centrally located piece of property to construct a building for the ambulances.
“I’m not against trying to find a good location and buying some property … property can be bought in a day or two,” Harris said.
Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice also mentioned that already having a piece of property could be appealing to ambulance service providers, possibly requiring the county to pay a lower subsidy.
Harris recommended holding another Ambulance Committee Meeting before this month’s Unicoi County Commission meeting and said he would continue looking over the request for proposal with the county attorney.
The next meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will be on Friday, April 20, at 1 p.m. in the Unicoi County Courthouse.