Ambulance service woes in the past for Unicoi County

Brad Hicks • Apr 18, 2013 at 9:55 AM

ERWIN — A little more than two years ago, the Unicoi County Commission called upon MedicOne Medical Response to serve as the county’s ambulance service provider, and officials feel the choice has brought a sense of stability to what has been a fluid situation.

It was during his first term as Unicoi County mayor that Greg Lynch received the call. The mayor appeared to have a crisis on his hands.

“It’s kind of a scary moment when someone calls and says ‘You’re not going to have an ambulance service,’” Lynch said.

In early 2008, Lynch said he received a call at around 8 p.m. one evening notifying him that the county’s then-ambulance provider, Emergystat, would no longer be able to operate in Unicoi County. The ambulance provider had lost its liability insurance coverage, meaning its employees could no longer drive ambulances in the county or treat patients.

A plan to utilize ambulances out of Washington and Carter counties to cover Unicoi County was quickly enacted, which came at a cost of about $60,000 to Unicoi County.

After discussions of once again having the county run its own ambulance service, as it had previously under the Unicoi County Ambulance Authority, county officials eventually opted in 2008 to have another private company, Pro-Med EMS, serve as the county’s ambulance service provider. However, this partnership would also end more quickly than anticipated.

In June 2010, the Unicoi County Commission vote to terminate the county’s contract with Pro-Med due to alleged contractual violations committed by the company, which included failure to establish a station in the town of Unicoi.

That August, the commission voted to have iCare EMS take over as the county’s emergency transport services provider. But less than six months after iCare was chosen, problems began to present themselves. In January 2011, iCare CEO Gary Walker advised the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee that “unethical” practices carried out by iCare’s competitors in Polk and McMinn counties had led to the company losing most of its business and that the company would likely be unable to provide the county with a required line of credit. The following month, Walker issued a 90-day notice to the county, after which iCare was to no longer operate in Unicoi County.

Once again faced with having no ambulance coverage, the county put out an request for proposal for the companies interested in taking over as the county’s ambulance provider. Three potential suitors - MedicOne Medical Response, Florida-based Lifeguard Air Ambulance, and Ambulance Service of Bristol - responded to the RFP.

After holding several meetings and hearing presentations from the three interested companies, the Texas-headquartered MedicOne was chosen by the commission in March 2011. All three companies sought an annual subsidy from the county and, while not the lowest bidder, Lynch said he feels MedicOne was the best choice. At the time of its selection, MedicOne was the county’s fourth ambulance provider within a five-year period.

“This has been, from a mayor’s office and county commission point of view, this has been an answered prayer for us as far as having an ambulance service that we can depend on,” he said.

And Lynch said the service quickly “stepped up to the plate,” as it began operations before the period outlined in the RFP operated without a subsidy until the start of the fiscal year that July. MedicOne President/CEO Jim Reeves said it typically takes an ambulance service at least 30 days to receive licensure to operate in an area. He said his company secured its Tennessee licensure within seven days.

“We did the unheard of,” Reeves said. “We pretty much completed an impossible task.”

Unicoi County was MedicOne’s first foray into Tennessee, but the company now has set up several independent operations across the state, including setting up its regional corporate office in Nashville and its billing and electronic patients records systems in Unicoi County.

“Since we opened in Unicoi County, we’ve expanded into Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis,” Reeves said. “So, we essentially have the state covered...Unicoi County was our first entrance into the state and it’s worked out really well for us.”

Reeves said MedicOne has access to technology - including onboard audio/video recording systems, ambulance driver behavior tracking and power stretchers - that other ambulances in the region have not yet implemented. He also a larger, private ambulance company has better access to capital and would be better able to keep up with changing regulations than a county-ran service.

MedicOne still has around two years left on its contract with Unicoi County, but Reeves hopes the partnership continues past that. He said the company has plans to build a new, state-of-the-art ambulance station in the county that could also serve as a training center and community center. The service is currently set up at the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“We really love the county and hope to have a long-term relationship here,” Reeves said.

Bill Hensley, Unicoi County Commissioner and ambulance committee chairman, said the ambulance situation has appeared to stabilize under MedicOne. Hensley said he has received some complaints about billing, and he would like to work with the company to see if it would be willing to renegotiate its $180,000 annual subsidy, but he said he has received no complaints about MedicOne’s transport services.

“They seem to be a good company,” Hensley said. “They haven’t had any complaints on the rescue part of it or the transportation part of it.”

Like Reeves, Lynch said he hopes the county’s partnership with MedicOne is a long-term one.

“We’ve landed with a company I hope stays in here for years because this is the most comfort level I’ve ever had with an ambulance company as far as from a mayoral standpoint, and I think a lot of our county commissioners might say the same thing,” Lynch said.

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