Unicoi County back in the search for ambulance provider

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 3, 2019 at 8:00 PM

ERWIN — On notice that MedicOne Medical Response is pulling out of its long-running contract negotiations with Unicoi County, county officials are back in the search for a new ambulance provider.

MedicOne owner and CEO Jim Reeves advised the mayor and commissioners by email Tuesday evening the company will not enter the new contract, but will remain in service in the county until a new ambulance provider is in place.

The commission’s Ambulance Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday and has invited officials from the town of Erwin to take part in the meeting.

In his email to the county, Reeves attributed MedicOne’s pending departure to staffing difficulties he said would have put the company in immediate violation of the new contract’s requirements for two advanced life support ambulances and one basic life support ambulance.

Reeves’ notice to the county

“Currently, we are having significant difficulty in staffing the two ALS units we are obligated to provide, and under the proposed new arrangement which requires two ALS units, along with one BLS unit, we have even greater concern with appropriate coverage.

“This would not be an insurmountable task to complete if we had the ability to properly staff or the ability to hire new employees from the area, but with the ongoing statewide ambulance staffing crisis as well as the continuous negative media attention from the locals, it is proving to be near impossible.

“As it stands, if we attempted to agree to the proposed contract and sign today we would be entering into an agreement that we would be in default upon execution if we were to sign. Based on this knowledge, our legal counsel has advised us not to execute this contract and has advised us to withdraw from consideration and kindly request you seek other options.”

In addition to the statewide EMT shortage, Reeves cited “incessant local media attacks on MedicOne” and “recent citizen litigation against the county,” as factors contributing to the company’s inability to staff to three ambulances.

“We are not only unable to keep existing employees working, we are unable to effectively recruit and hire new employees to back fill those staffing losses, a recurring problem we have been working diligently to solve,” he wrote.

MedicOne in the headlines

MedicOne has been making local headlines since November 2016 when Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley advised the county of the company’s recurring failure to provide ambulances for medical emergency calls inside the town had put the county in violation of its interlocal agreement to provide the town with ambulance service.

A countywide task force was created to explore the feasibility of creating a locally controlled ambulance service and over the next 18 months a $440,000 grant for the purchase of two ambulances and $250,000 in foundation funding to invest in station house was secured.

The effort fell short in March 2018, when Erwin aldermen opted not to vote on proposal to create a town-operated ambulance service that was to partner with the county in a local ambulance authority after its first year. The following month, county commissioners deferred action on a proposal to buy land for an ambulance station until after the county’s upcoming election.

Faced with the April 1, 2019, expiration of its existing contract with MedicOne, the newly elected county commission put the new contract out to bid in May, advertising its request for proposals for one day in the Johnson City Press and forwarding the RFP to MedicOne, to two companies that no longer did business in Tennessee and to a former employee of an ambulance company that had expressed interest in bidding on the contract but who no longer worked for the company.

MedicOne subsequently became the only bidder on the contract, and after an unsuccessful proposal for the county to reconsider the contract’s bidding, the county awarded MedicOne the contract in December.

A citizen’s lawsuit filed in January to halt the contract due to what was alleged to be a flawed bidding process was dismissed for lack on standing on Friday, three days ahead of Monday’s expiration of MedicOne’s prior contract with the county.

Going forward

In his Tuesday night email, Reeves told county officials, “We will continue to be a partner to the citizens and community and will not leave Unicoi County without ambulance services while a new solution is being sought.”

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said in press release on Wednesday, “MedicOne is committed to providing service until the County Commission can take action to secure another provider.

“The commission will be meeting and moving forward with the process as quickly a possible. We have a mutual aid agreement with other county services to provide backup support for services.”

Hensley said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy and Washington County/Johnson City EMS Director Dan Wheely on Wednesday gave Erwin and Unicoi County officials assurance of Washington County’s availability to assist.

Hensley said a prior discussion of Erwin contracting Washington County to provide ambulances to the town was not at a point to move forward at this time.

A representative of a new volunteer rescue squad organizing in Unicoi County told the County Commission last month, the group is seeking nonprofit status, recruiting volunteers and raising money for equipment.