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MedicOne CEO threatens legal action

By Brad Hicks | Erwin Bureau Chief | Johnson City Press
Puzzled. Baffled.
“Frustrated beyond belief.”
The CEO of Unicoi County’s ambulance provider says that’s what he’s feeling after the Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee’s vote on Thursday, Jan. 22, to recommend putting the county’s ambulance service contract back out for bid. (To read a full story about the meeting, please read “Panel opts to bid ambulance service” found on the front page.)
And he suspects there may be more to the decision than just the cost of doing business.
“We’ve done a phenomenal job for that county,” MedicOne Medical Response CEO Jim Reeves said Friday. “We’ve made a few mistakes along the way, as anybody would, but we’ve exceeded the minimum set in the contract and industry standards we’ve exceeded by numerous amounts, so it’s just baffling to us that the commission is ignoring all the facts of the good things and success and are punishing us for the mistakes of their own doing.”
The Ambulance Committee voted to recommend the full Unicoi County Commission vote to put the county’s ambulance services contract out for bid. The county commission is set to vote at its Monday meeting on whether it will follow this recommendation.
When the commission approved MedicOne as the ambulance service provider in March 2011, it was the fourth provider the county had used since 2008. MedicOne’s four-year contract is set to expire on April 1.
Some county officials say the county can no longer afford part of that contract: The $180,000 subsidy paid to the company each of the past four years.
The Ambulance Committee met with MedicOne representatives on Jan. 15 to discuss the company’s contract with the county. At that meeting, Reeves offered to decrease the annual subsidy to $120,000 if the county would extend the contract. At Thursday’s meeting, Daryl Gibson, MedicOne vice president of business development, offered to reduce the annual subsidy to $100,000. Gibson also told commissioners that after 90 to 100 days, the company could review its figures and possibly lower the subsidy to $90,000, adding that the company would possibly work toward a zero subsidy.
At Thursday’s meeting, County Attorney Doug Shults advised the committee that because the terms of MedicOne’s contract would change, the county should put the contract out for bid to avert legal liability. Citing Shults’ advice, members of the Ambulance Committee opted to recommend that the full county commission vote to put the ambulance contract out for bid.
“The county attorney has stated to us and to the commission that it is improper to engage in negotiations outside the realm of a (request for proposal),” said Reeves, who was not at Thursday’s meeting. “That’s why the county attorney is stating it needs to go out for RFP so we can legally engage in negotiations.”
But Reeves said members of the county commission have been negotiating all along, and have “browbeat” his company into lowering its subsidy.
He said he suspects some members of the county commission have a “hidden agenda,” and there is more to the committee’s recommendation than the subsidy cost.
He said some commissioners are financially “punishing” his company because of poor decisions they made in the process of preparing the county’s 2014-15 budget, such as allowing revenue-generating state inmates to be removed from the county’s jails.
And the controversy over Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown’s contract may have also had a part in the committee’s decision, Reeves said.
He said Cathy Thomas, who chairs the Unicoi County Board of Education, is an hourly employee with MedicOne who has “minimal involvement” in the company’s operations.
Earlier this month, the school board voted 3-3 to renew Brown’s contract, with Thomas casting one of the dissenting votes. Because of the split vote, Brown’s contract was not renewed, an outcome that Reeves said some on the county commission are unhappy with and are taking out their frustrations against MedicOne.
And MedicOne officials, he said, won’t sit idly by if they believe the company is wronged.
“If there is any evidence of any impropriety that comes forward, we will meet this aggressively with strong legal action,” Reeves said.
“Every one of these commissioners that are engaged in illegal activities, which we know they are — they violate the Sunshine Act on a daily basis, they have illegal meetings, they have illegal discussion — we know about these, we have evidence of these, and we will see this prosecuted to the fullest extent,” he said.
Still, Reeves said he harbors no ill-will toward the commissioners.
“I don’t think anything bad of anybody on that commission,” Reeves said. “I’m frustrated beyond belief, yes. Of all the ambulance providers that have been in that county, we’re not a small company. Unicoi County represents 4 percent of our overall business but, yet, it represents 33 percent of our bad debt.”
He said MedicOne has made it publicly known what the company would offer with a new contract, which would impair its chances of being selected in a competitive bid process, as other ambulance companies are now privy to this information.
“What do we have left to show? All the other vendors can see what we’re offering and can go in and make a bid based upon our information,” Reeves said. “That’s issue No. 1 with it. Issue No. 2, we have agreed to lower the subsidy, even through in the four years since we’ve taken on that contract reimbursements have declined drastically, call volume has declined drastically, and the costs have increased.
“We’ve went out on a limb, not as a good business move, but out of kindness and compassion for that county that we care so much about. But ambulances don’t run on kindness and compassion. They run on diesel fuel. Employees don’t work for kindness and compassion. They work for wages that cost money.”
Gibson, the company’s vice president of business development, told Ambulance Committee members Thursday that if MedicOne’s contract is not extended and the county puts the ambulance service out for bid, the company would not bid on the contract.
Reeves said Friday that MedicOne officials are still leaning in this direction.
“We’ve done a good job,” Reeves said. “No one on that commission would dispute that. Why go out for bid if things are going well? We’ve agreed to voluntarily lower the subsidy, which is their main mission. They wanted the subsidy lowered. We did that. We lowered it by a third which, in today’s world, no other ambulance provider would do that. They would raise the subsidy.”
So why would the company want to stay?
Reeves said it has become “personal.”
He said he has spent a great deal of time in the county over the past four years, has worked with the sheriff’s department, and has made a number of friends in Unicoi County and ties to the community.
“I would urge these commissioners to use their brains and think this through, because the consequences are long-term,” Reeves said. “If they don’t get this right, this is a huge mistake that they’re going to live with for four years.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said that because of the threat of legal action, the county could not comment on Reeves’ statements at this time.
The Ambulance Committee is currently scheduled to meet Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 4 p.m. to revise RFP for solicitations for the county’s ambulance service. The committee is also scheduled to meet on Feb. 2 at 3 p.m. to discuss and finalize the RFP.