Options eyed as hospital wants out of ambulance business

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Ambulance drivers and emergency medical technicians inMonticello may have a new employer soon.

Lawrence County Hospital has expressed an interest in gettingout of the ambulance service business, Mayor David Nichols said.The mayor said he was told it was because the ambulances arestaffed by nurses and they no longer want to staff the service.

Nichols said he did not know why the hospital did not hire EMTsto staff the ambulance but said that was one of several questionshe would ask when he talks to the hospital again.

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The hospital’s operations were leased to Southwest RegionalMedical Center about two years ago. Part of that contractstipulated that the hospital would be responsible for ensuring thecounty had ambulance service, Nichols said. The contract, however,did not stipulate that the hospital itself provide thatservice.

Nichols presented two possible options to the board of aldermanTuesday. They could let the hospital contract those services to aprivate ambulance service or take over the services themselves.

The advantages of running it themselves, the mayor said, arethat actual EMTs would be hired to staff the ambulances and thedriver could serve as an on-duty, 24-hour firefighter when on call,which would allow the town to improve its insurance fire rating toClass 6.

“We’ve done everything we need to do to get to 6 except havingtwo firemen on 24-hour duty,” Nichols said.

Despite the advantages, he said he was not convinced the townshould operate an ambulance service.

“I would hate to see this service privatized, but I don’t knowif the city should do it,” Nichols said.

The mayor said he has consulted with the mayors in Olive Branch,Horn Lake and Vicksburg because they have city-operated ambulanceservices and found that most claim they are not profitable.

Horn Lake did say that it could be profitable if it was operatedas a business, Nichols said, which meant pricing to reflect thecosts of supplies, salaries and other expenditures.

The city comparisons to Monticello are not ideal, but fair,Nichols said. He said that although the cities are larger they arecomparable to Lawrence County numbers, and ambulances here wouldhave to serve the entire county.

The initial investment of taking over the operations would benearly $400,000, he said, including office supplies, uniforms,paramedics, drivers, a clerk, maintenance, gas, insurance andmedical supplies.

The mayor said the ambulance service here has demonstrated thatit can make a profit.

“They made money there last year and they’re making money thisyear,” he said, but added that last year was the first time theservice had shown a profit.

The hospital was unable to provide hard figures on the ambulanceservices expenses and profits because they are tied too directlyinto other hospital billing, Nichols said.

The alternative, the mayor said, is to let the hospitalprivatize the service. In that scenario, he said, the contractorwould probably operate like they do in other counties – oneambulance in the county with another on standby in a neighboringcounty that moves to the county line when the first ambulance isdispatched.

Nichols said he has consulted with officials in Jefferson Davisand other counties where private ambulance service is provided andthey expressed dissatisfaction with the service, citing longerresponse times in dual-emergency situations.

Aldermen were dubious of taking on such a large-scale andpotentially litigious service.

Ward Five Alderman Steve Clyburn, whose son is a paramedic,voiced the first concerns.

“If we can avoid getting into the ambulance service, I think weneed to,” he said.

Former alderman Pete Mathews, an EMT with the hospital ambulanceservice, was present at the meeting and suggested the board lookvery closely at its operations before making a commitment.

Ward Four Alderman Dick Reeves said if the town was going toconsider “getting into the ambulance business” and provide aservice for the entire county, then the county should assist them.Even more appropriately, he said, the county should operate theservice and let the city assist.

No vote was taken Tuesday to allow Nichols to get moreinformation from the hospital and to consult with countysupervisors on a partnership.