Washington County EMS stepping in to provide Unicoi County ambulance services

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More than a month after MedicOne pulled out of a contract to provide Unicoi County’s ambulance services, Washington County EMS is poised to step up to the plate while the county builds its own services. 

Washington County EMS Director Dan Wheeley answered questions from Unicoi County leaders on Monday. Currently, the plan is for Washington County EMS to take the wheel while Unicoi County leaders begin building their program. 

“Our goal is stability in the region,” he explained. “When Unicoi County has lapses in service or decreased service levels then it puts the burden on other providers, for us and Carter County, ends up responding.

“Our goal is to help them establish their own service to make it stable for them and their employees and to reduce the burden that’s on the other providers in the region.” 

Based on call volume, Wheeley estimated it would cost the county about $218,000 per year to provide its own ambulance services. 

Some commissioners mused that the figure is cheaper than the county has paid for contractors in the past, but Wheeley cautioned that the cost is dependent on several factors that could make starting a service tricky.

“So much of EMS and medical billing is dictated by the government, so any time the government makes changes to payment regulations it trickles down to the service level,” he said. “If there’s cuts in Medicare or Medicaid payments, it’s going to affect the revenue of what they can generate here. That would put the burden back on the county.”

He noted other factors that could affect the estimated cost, including benefits packages for employees and whether leaders would choose to add more ambulances or staff. 

Commissioners also noted a $300,000 grant they may use to purchase ambulances and equipment, which they said would be helpful in starting their own EMS services.

The county could still opt to open a bid to third-party contractors, though, which Wheeley said is one of his fears. He said during the meeting that the point of taking over services for a year isn’t to act as a “stopgap” for their neighboring county. 

“If they do decide to bid it out in six months we’ll be right back in this same situation in a few years when that contract’s up,” Wheeley said. “They’ll be going out to bid or that service will pull out on them as they have in the past and we’re right back in the same situation.”

Commissioner Glenn White said he hopes to see plans for a county, but said details are hazy since the county hasn’t provided its own services before. 

“I think within the next six months is going to determine which road we’re going to take,” White said. “I’m personally, right now, would like to see us explore a county-run service like most of the counties in the region have that.” 

After the meeting, Wheeley joined commissioners for a tour of the facility that would become the new headquarters for Unicoi County EMS. The building is an unused wing of the old Unicoi County Hospital. 

Commissioners said they hope to have everything up and running in the new building by July.

Officials discussed a future meeting with current MedicOne employees about the transition. Employees did not comment during the meeting, but one said they had “a lot of questions.” 

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