Unicoi County leaders are considering creating their own ambulance service after a long-debated contract with their current provider abruptly fell through last week.
On Tuesday, the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met for the first time since MedicOne Medical Response told commissioners they would not be able to meet the staffing levels required under their new contract.
MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves said in an email to commissioners that the company would continue to provide EMS service while local leaders decide what’s next.
Amid high stakes, the solution that seemed to stand out was a pitch to create an ambulance service from the ground up, an option that’s been put on the back burner in the Town of Erwin for about a year, even after the locality received a grant to put towards the joint effort.
“You’re never going to get it right until you do it yourself,” said Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley.
“I’m leaning just a little, or maybe a lot towards looking at starting our own so we can control it and own it,” said Commissioner Glenn White. “
Town of Erwin Alderman Mark Lafever, newly appointed to the county’s Ambulance Committee, raised concerns that they’d simply inherit many of the same problems that forced MedicOne to back out of its contract.
“These problems that these people are facing don’t go away because we take it over,” said Lafever.
Lafever said he’s specifically concerned that statewide staffing shortages of paramedics will persist.
Plus, Lafever is worried about the financial liability localities would be forced to assume.
“One of the big fears is always if the ambulance service going to generate enough revenue to pay for the services and if it doesn’t what is that additional cost going to be and where does it come from,” said Dan Wheeley, executive director of Washington County EMS.
Wheeley said Washington County, in partnership with Johnson City, has had its own ambulance service since the 1980s.
He said he thinks a county-based service is the best long-term solution to foster stability for local leaders and EMS providers.
Wheeley emphasized that stability takes significant planning that will not happen overnight.
In the meantime, commissioners are considering pursuing a short-term interlocal agreement with Washington County EMS.
Mosley said this partnership would ease the transition into creating their own service.
Wheeley said this type of arrangement would require further approval from Washington County leaders, in part, to make sure that existing services are not jeopardized.
“We want to make sure that what we provide over here suits their needs but we have to make sure we don’t decrease any service levels in Washington County, that there’s no transfer of funds,” said Wheeley. “What we do over here has to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining.”
Meanwhile, Mosley said commissioners are planning to launch a new bidding process to attract private contractors.
Commissioners agreed to advertise more this time around after locals raised concerns that the original bidding process was inadequate.
Mosley said they’ll be looking for providers who have back-up resources to prevent future staff and equipment shortages.
Yet Mosley has concerns that a new deal with a private contractor will force the county to raise taxes. “Chances are it could be higher, that’s my personal opinion, but I could be wrong. I hope I will be,” said Mosley.
Mosley said the commission has not discussed pursuing legal action against MedicOne for breaking what County Attorney Doug Shults called a legally binding contract, even though a final draft was never signed by both parties.
“We’ve got more things to do than worry about MedicOne,” said Mosley.
The full Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet on April 15th at 5 PM to vote on putting the ambulance service contract back out for bid.