Commission to take up recommendation for local ambulance service startup

Sue Guinn Legg • Nov 24, 2019 at 8:15 PM

ERWIN — After several years of work to improve ambulance service in Unicoi County, a recommendation to establish a county operated service is up for discussion and possible vote at Monday night’s County Commission meeting.

The recommendation from the commission’s Ambulance Committee came last week, a little more than four months into a one-year temporary service agreement with Washington County/Johnson City EMS intended to assist the county into the transition to a locally controlled service.

County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said an approximate $28,000 net increase in operating funds, month-over-month increases in fee collections, good response times and positive feedbacks from people who have used the service were all contributing factors to the committee’s recommendation.

“It’s still early in the game but the trends are all positive,” Eveley said.

“It’s still too early to project if it will be a break even situation. They are meeting payroll and expenses. Collection rates climbing monthly, 49 percent now up from 47 percent last month. There is quality of service. ... And they are getting along well with the volunteer fire departments,” he said.

The one-year service agreement with Washington County/Johnson City EMS was entered in June and included a one-time payment of $100,000 in start-up funding that Evely said was figured into the net gain that has occurred between its July 15 effective date and Oct. 31.

The cost compares to more than $300,000 in annual costs paid to the private MedicOne Medical Response Services provider previously contracted by the county. Washington County/Johnson City EMS officials have estimated the total annual cost of operating the service at $218,000.

In negotiating the agreement, Washington County/Johnson City EMS Director Dan Wheely told county commissioners very little revenue would be generated for the first several months of operation. Evely said Friday user payments did not begin coming in until 60 to 90 days after the July 15 start date.

Since the start up, a new location for the service has also been secured in three-bay garage and an adjoining residential suite located adjacent to the former Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

Owned by the former hospital board, the new EMS headquarters is being subleased from Christian Care Center of Unicoi County which previously occupied the facility.

Upon entering the agreement with Washington County, county commissioners said they would closely monitor the service for a period of months before deciding whether to proceed with the creation of a county operated service or to put the service back out for contract bids.

A task force of elected officials with the county and the town of Erwin and first responders first began discussing the creation of a locally controlled service in 2016 when concerns rose over poor response times and lacking availability of MedicOne ambulances.