By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County moved closer to making a decision about the future of its ambulance service with a meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee on Monday, May 13, at the Unicoi County Courthouse. On hand to offer guidance to the officials was Washington County/Johnson City EMS Director Dan Wheely.

During the May 1 Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting it was discussed that Washington County/Johnson City EMS would be an option to provide ambulance service to the county for one year for a subsidy of $218,677.

“They can supply us 24 hours a day for seven days a week with two ALS (Advanced Life Support) ambulances, and one BLS (Basic Life Support) ambulance for five days a week, 10 hours a day, for the $218,677,” Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley, who serves as the committee chairman, said on May 1.

According to Wheely, Washington County/Johnson City EMS would need roughly $100,000 of the $218,677 upfront to get started working in Unicoi County.

“We have to make sure that we are making payroll and not taking away from Washington County,” Wheely said.

Wheely expressed the need to appoint someone as director to oversee the services in Unicoi County. When asked by Mosley if that director would be someone from MedicOne, the ambulance service provider that recently pulled out of a contract with Unicoi County, Wheely would not say for sure. He did acknowledge he would like to see someone from MedicOne step into that role.

“I would like to have a meeting with the MedicOne employees, if you decide to go this route,” Wheely said. “Having a meeting with the staff (MedicOne) is very important.”

According to Mosley, July may be the time to decide either way if Washington County/Johnson City EMS will sign a one year interlocal agreement with Unicoi County.

“In a perfect world, I’d like to see this transition take place in July, when we have our budget set,” Mosley said.

Unicoi County Ambulance Committee member and Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice agreed.

“That would give (Wheely) time, and us time to prepare,” Rice said. “The more time the better.” Wheely said he was eyeing a July start date as well.

“Our budget runs the same time frame, so July would make it a clean time to start,” Wheely said.

According to Mosley, at this time no decisions have been made in regards to a time frame to make a decision on an interlocal agreement with Washington County/Johnson City EMS.

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As for the years ahead, Unicoi County officials have considered beginning a county run service as well as offering a contract to another company that would provide the service.

During an April Ambulance Committee Meeting, Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White acknowledged that 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 during the April 9 meeting.

Also during that meeting, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley addressed the committee to discuss the Town of Erwin purchasing ambulances with $500,000 state grant funds.

“The grant could purchase two new ambulances and a possible third ambulance for transport,” Hensley said during the April 9 meeting.

Rice, at the April 9 meeting, 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 during the April 9 meeting, there could also be up to $150,000 that can be used from the Hospital Foundation Funds to start an ambulance service.

On Monday, Wheely said that by signing a one-year interlocal agreement, Unicoi County could decide if they would like to start a county run service and to purchase new vehicles or lease to purchase vehicles from Washington County/Johnson City EMS. Wheely acknowledged that once the county starts the service up, if they decide to, the county could run the service annually to the cost of roughly $218,000.

“That is not that expensive,” White said. “That may be the route we need to take. Since I’ve been on the commission, it’s been a nightmare, since we began sending ambulance services out to bidders.”

Wheely said he would like to see Unicoi County start its own service.

“I’d like to see you start your own service, not just act as a stop gap so you can bid the services back out,” Wheely said.

If Unicoi County decides to start its own service, Wheely sees a transition that could take only a few months.

“I would say it would take up to six months to switch over, if you decided to start your own services,” Wheely said.

Wheely left the committee with some other items to think about.

“One of the biggest things to be thinking about is how you want to structure a county run ambulance service,” Wheely said. “You have to think about employee benefits, structure and oversight, whether you want this committee to make decisions or do you want to establish a board of directors.”

Unicoi County representatives said they are thankful for the guidance that Wheely has provided the county.

“Dan (Wheely) and his staff have been very professional and we appreciate that,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said.

Rice agreed.

“We certaninly appreciate your time and effort,” she said.

According to Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, whatever ambulance service the county has going forward it will have a new home.

“The $218,000 subsidy doesn’t cover housing, so we can move them into the old hospital without any cost except utilities,” Thomas said. “Christian Care Center (of Unicoi County) doesn’t occupy the back of the building, they are just using the front of the building.”

Currently, the county is still weighing all options for ambulance service and MedicOne is still serving Unicoi County. According to Mosley, there is currently no date set for the next Ambulance Committee Meeting.

“The full commission will not hear Washington County/Johnson City EMS proposal at the May 20 meeting,” Mosley said. “It will probably be heard by a special called meeting; it will not happen next Monday.”