VICKSBURG, MI – Financially troubled South County EMS could be taken over by another area ambulance company, but it will be a week before that is known.
The South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority board in a special meeting Wednesday discussed that option as a crowd came to hear the fate of the “financially precarious” ambulance service that provides coverage for more than 16,000 residents.
The bottom line, board members said, is that an area ambulance company – Life EMS, Pride Care of LifeCare – could take over South County EMS debts, its vehicles and operate out of its Vicksburg building. There is also the chance that current South County paramedics and EMTs would be retained.
In return, that company would receive a provider agreement with SKCFA until the current pact runs out at the end of March 2020. There would be no charge to the authority.
The authority has scheduled a special meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 15, to further discuss the issue. Until that happens, said Wes Schmitt, South County EMS president, his company will continue service.
“We do not want rumors and innuendos flying around that are stressful to our residents, municipal leaders, employees, management and the board,” Schmitt said. “We will continue uninterrupted service regardless. South County EMS will do its part to make sure there is no lapse in coverage.”
Randy Smith, SKCFA board member, said since Schmitt outlined the company’s troubles in May board members have been scrambling to find a solution. The one that seemed the most feasible was to have another area ambulance service take over South County EMS under the current provider agreement it has with SKCFA.
“What that would mean is they would take over the current operating agreement that expires March 31, 2020, giving this board two and a half years to figure out what they want to do here in the long term,” Smith said.
“This gives us some breathing room. We’re just trying to bridge a gap right now in an emergency situation. I can’t imagine a better deal.”
Smith said Life EMS has indicated it would take over South County EMS debt and vehicles and operate out of Vicksburg. The company also said it would interview South County EMS paramedics and EMTs, expressing concern for how the company’s troubles have affected employees.
But some audience members urged the board to let other companies see if they could match or better the offer. Tracy McMillan, SKCFA fire chief who said he was speaking as a citizen and not the chief, said the authority should not make a decision until the other ambulance companies had a chance to make their pitch.
“We are covered,” McMillan said. “South County EMS is still responding. You don’t want to pick a name (tonight). You should not put a name to the agreement until you have something in writing.”
Others in the audience questioned why the authority won’t provide funding to South County EMS. Smith said that the authority under its current articles cannot provide tax dollars to South County EMS because it is a non-profit company. He denied that the authority had the funding even if it could provide it.
The financial troubles of South County EMS are not unusual, officials said. Like many of the 15,000 ambulance companies in the United States, South County EMS is a victim of changes that came with the Affordable Care Act.
Its revenue relies upon private insurance, Medicaid, and Medicare. Its cost per run is about $500 and they bill out at a rate averaging $1,000. Medicaid reimburses about $185 a run and prohibits billing the client for the balance. Medicare reimburses about $360 a run and also prohibits billing the client for the balance.
Schmitt said in May that the ambulance debt is about $130,000 and its facility debt is about $205,000. The building on Boulevard Street has been appraised at $350,000.
Dr. William Fales, medical director of the Kalamazoo County Medical Control Authority, said his job is to make sure South County residents are properly served by an ambulance company, not to pick that company.
“It’s unfortunate to see the way things have developed, but they are happening all over the country,” Fales said. “No doubt the ones (ambulance companies) we have in the county could step in and help, but the fire board and the jurisdictions need a long-term solution.”