WC/JC EMS offers short term solution for Unicoi County

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Apr 9, 2019 at 9:22 PM

ERWIN — On notice that MedicOne Medical Response will leave Erwin as soon as a new ambulance service can be brought on board, the Unicoi County Commission’s Ambulance Committee received an offer of help from neighboring Washington County on Tuesday.

In a morning committee meeting attended by the mayors and several Erwin and Unicoi aldermen, Washington County/Johnson City EMS Executive Director Dan Wheeley presented the county with a short-term solution and an offer of longer-term assistance contingent on a payment agreement and the approval of the WC/JC EMS board.

On Tuesday evening, the Washington County board authorized Wheeley to continue the discussions, which he he said would benefit both counties as well as EMS services in other surrounding counties.

For the short term, Wheely said Washington County could post three ambulances in Unicoi County if MedicOne makes a sudden exit. If Unicoi County resumes its prior efforts to establish a locally controlled service, the arrangement could be extended for up to a year or longer to allow time to get the new service up and running.

Wheeley told the committee the primary benefits of a local service is the control over the level of service it gives the county and the ability to avoid the sudden loss of service from a contracted provider.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley told the committee a nearly $500,000 grant awarded to the town for the purchase of two new ambulances, and and possibly a third used ambulance, will be available for another 18 months and can be transferred to the county.

The county also has $440,000 remaining from the sale of the former Unicoi County Memorial Hospital and another $125,000 in foundation funding available to help start a local service.

Stacy Wiggins, MedicOne’s interim director in Unicoi County, told the committee the Dallas-based company is no longer hiring and will not bring in additional staff from outside the county during its remaining time here.

The decision has left MedicOne with about 75 percent of the staff needed for Unicoi County and is requiring the remaining EMTs and paramedics to work double and triple shifts.

MedicOne has attributed a statewide EMT shortage and media coverage of its contract issues with the county for its inability to maintain an adequate number of staff members.

Erwin Alderman Mark Lafever noted the staffing problem will not go away if the county takes over the service and that a local controlled service will also expose local taxpayers to a huge liability.

Wiggins said the staffing problem has been worsened by MedicOne’s requirement that staff members travel to Nashville for certification, reluctance to accept employment that depends on the renewal of a four-year contract and the inability to accumulate retirement savings without a longer term of guaranteed employment.

Wiggins told the committee the liability of ambulance service can be reduced if operated properly and Washington County has a reputation for solid management.

Following a lengthy discussion of the Washington County offer of assistance and renewing its study of the a local service startup, the committee voted to recommend the full County Commission authorize the advertisement of a request for information to explore interest in the Unicoi County ambulance contract.

The commission will consider the request in a called meeting set for Monday.