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Towns aren't talking ambulance contracts – yet

Brad Hicks | Erwin Bureau Chief | Johnson City Press
Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley wants to put the rumor to rest — the town is not currently pursuing its own contract with MedicOne Medical Response or any other ambulance services provider.
But Hensley said a delay in action by the Unicoi County Commission to contract with another provider may force the town’s hand, as town officials want to ensure its citizens have ambulance coverage.
“We’re still in there with (the county), we want to be part of them, but in the event there’s a lapse, then I’ve got to take care of the folks in the town,” Hensley said Friday.
Although Hensley said Erwin officials have not discussed seeking out their own ambulance service, the town has been approached. Stacy Wigand with MedicOne was present at the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Monday meeting to inquire about the possibility of his company becoming the town’s exclusive ambulance services provider.
Per the town’s agreement with the county, the county is to conduct negotiations for ambulance services, with the town relying on the company chosen by the county for its ambulance coverage, Hensley said.
“As long as the city’s taken care of and we have emergency services, I’m completely happy with allowing the county to handle that,” Hensley said.
However, Hensley said the county needs to act quickly in nailing down a contract with a new provider. MedicOne’s current contract is set to expire on April 1, and the Erwin mayor said the next ambulance provider needs to be in place and prepared to serve all of the county’s citizens at that time.
“Mr. Wigand at that meeting kind of hinted if there was a gap that they would be willing to come into the city for a 90-day period, so that’s a possibility we would definitely look at, even though it’s not the only thing that we would look at,” Hensley said. “But we’re going to make sure that there’s not a gap between the end of this current contract and the beginning of the new one where we don’t have service. It might be that we have to contract with another county, but if we do, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
The county commission voted on Monday to forgo the extension of MedicOne’s contract and put the county’s ambulance services contract out for bid. Prior to the move, representatives with MedicOne said they would likely not submit a bid if the county opted to put the contract out for bid. But after the commission’s vote, MedicOne officials said the company would attempt to pursue agreements with the town of Erwin and town of Unicoi. The company has served the county since 2011.
Hensley said if Unicoi County’s two towns were to contract exclusively with MedicOne, it would make the county’s efforts to find a provider to cover citizens residing outside of the towns much more difficult, since the majority of the county’s overall population lies within the limits of the towns.
“That would just kill our county because there wouldn’t be any options,” Hensley said. “The main portion of the revenue that the emergency services gets is actually from the town of Unicoi and the town of Erwin because we’re more heavily populated,” Hensley said.
The county commission’s Ambulance Committee is set to meet Monday at 3 p.m. to finalize the request for the proposal the county will release to field bids from interested ambulance companies. This proposal will likely be released on either Tuesday or Wednesday and will remain open until Feb. 19. The committee will open the bids received that day and begin listening to oral presentations from companies submitting bids.
Hensley, who said she plans to be present at Monday’s meeting, said if the full county commission is not prepared to move forward with a new contract at its meeting in late February, Erwin officials will then begin preparation of a plan to make sure town residents are covered on at least a temporary basis.
Like Hensley, town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said his town is not seeking its own ambulance contract at this time. Lynch said town officials have not yet been approached or contacted by MedicOne representatives.
“I would think our feelings would be pretty well in line with what Erwin said,” Lynch said. “Of course, we don’t want our citizens to go without an ambulance, but we’re inclined to kind of go along with whatever the county comes up with.”
Lynch also said a portion of the property tax collected from citizens across the county goes toward paying for ambulance service. He said the move for the town to bring in its own provider would be “double taxation.”
Still, Lynch also said the county commission needs to move quickly as the expiration date of the MedicOne contract approaches.
“My feelings are fairly well in line with what you get from Erwin,” Lynch said. “We do want service for our people, but I do feel like right now it’s a county thing. It’s in the county commission’s hands. I’m agreeable to go ahead and let them work it out, but I do wish they’d go ahead and be pretty quick about this thing. Let’s not have a gap in there somewhere.”