Tragedy to advocacy

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

Morgan County’s very own Ellen Sims has become the face of a new campaign to reform Georgia’s emergency medical response system after tragically losing her mother, Donna Martin, who died of cardiac arrest triggered by a wasp sting after waiting for nearly a half hour before an out-of-county ambulance arrived in 2018. 

The Georgia Ambulance Transparency Project (GATP) is telling Sims’ tragic story through a new commercial to push state lawmakers to improve regulations on ambulance service in Georgia. 

“Martin’s case painfully demonstrates the absolute imperative that the Georgia General Assembly reform our state’s corrupted and dysfunctional emergency medical services,” said a press release from the GATP. 

Sims does not mince words, accusing local and state ambulance companies of profit-driven corruption, crony capitalism, and operating without sufficient oversight.  

“In Georgia, emergency medical service is a complicated snake pit of back room dealers who leverage relationships, money and power at the expense of patients and families like mine,” said Sims.  “By law, the state is divvied up into 10 districts whose ambulance service is self-determined by local panels. While the structure was conceived in good faith to allow for maximum local control, it also allows ambulance company executives to serve on those panels—and sometimes even to direct tax dollars to their own wallets.” 

While Sims has advocated for adding another ambulance in Morgan County, she is hoping to make a difference, not only locally, but on a statewide level.  Sims, and her family, wants action from lawmakers to ensure other families do not suffer the same fate as Donna Martin. Sims appears in a new GATP commercial asking Georgia voters to support Georgia House Bill 264, which would bar private ambulance operators from serving on boards that select which ambulance companies will serve local health districts. The bill also aims to set a 2-year term limit for all members; require vendors to register with the state ethics commission to help root out pay-to-play, require mandatory service provider reviews to ensure safety, and to require that all ambulance providers meet national safety standards.

“Those reforms might have saved my mother’s life, because my mother didn’t die from a simple wasp sting, or even the cardiac arrest it triggered. Donna Martin died because of a corrupt system,” said Sims. 

The bill was introduced by State Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, with an impressive amount of co-sponsors, including Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, chair of the House GOP caucus; Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, chair of the House Ethics Committee; and Terry England, R-Auburn, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“We don’t need conflicts of interest and the potential for corruption to be allowed in one of Georgia’s most critical public safety systems,” said Werkheiser. “Even the hint of impropriety should be eliminated if we want to be good stewards of taxpayer resources, and this bill would do just that by ending statutory loopholes that have been abused for too long.”

For Sims, House Bill 264’s ban on private ambulance company officials holding seats on health district board is imperative. 

“In fact, it was one of those four crony capitalist panels that determined which company provided ambulance services in Morgan County, where my mother was stung by a wasp last year. Within minutes, she had suffered a severe reaction, but National EMS, which has a pair of seats on the council, never came,” said Sims. “Thirty minutes later an ambulance from a neighboring county arrived, but by then it was too late. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital.”

However, Huey Atkins, National EMS Director of Operations for Morgan County, sits on the District 10 Health Council, along with Don Cargile, another National EMS official for Oconee County, is pushing back against the newly proposed bill and the claims made by Sims and the GATP. Atkins opposes House Bill 264 and believes the GATP is spreading misinformation about how Georgia’s Health District Councils are run. 

“It’s a terrible bill,” said Atkins. “The people spreading these kind of accusations are either misinformed and have ill-intent.”

According to Atkins, less than five percent of representatives on Georgia’s health district councils are comprised of members from private ambulance companies and all of the representatives are appointed by their local county commissioners. 

“How people can claim that these boards are stacked in favor of private ambulance companies is ridiculous,” said Atkins. “What they are claiming is that the councils are stacked with private providers who bribe politicians to vote their way…The GATP, and this bill, wants to restrict any member who works for a private company from serving on these boards. They don’t want anybody on a health district council that is not a government employee.”

According to Atkins, out of 28 members, the District 10 Health Council has only two members from a private ambulance company. In District 3, there are four members from private ambulances companies out of three-dozen members. 

“Across the state, the representatives from private ambulance companies are very minimal and these boards are recommending bodies only and do not make final policy decisions. We serve on these boards to represent our community and make sure our communities have a voice at the table.”

Ambulance service in Morgan County, which is part of Georgia District 10 Health District, is currently contracted out to a private company, National EMS, bought by Priority Ambulance last year. National EMS has been Morgan County’s ambulance provider since 1988 and has held accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services for 25 consecutive years. The county pays $289,000 a year for two ambulances that operate 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, mandating that the ambulances respond to Priority One calls in less than 9 minutes and 59 seconds, 90 percent of the time. Both officials from the county and National EMS claim two ambulances are adequate to handle the vast majority of emergency medical needs and hospital transfers in Morgan County, a community of more than 18,000 people. The addition of a third ambulance would cost the county $500,000 extra per year—a cost that would most likely be passed on to the taxpayers, according to County Manager Adam Mestres.

Atkins believes the data shows National EMS is meeting all of Morgan County’s contractual obligations to the community, although he acknowledges that the county’s more rural areas, like Buckhead, regularly wait at least 12-15 minutes whenever they call for an ambulance. 

“We have pretty good response times for a county as big and as rural as Morgan County,” said Atkins. “Nobody is perfect. I think all services can always do better, but I think we do a good job. Unfortunately there are always going to be those times when there is a bad accident and the resources aren’t available because our ambulances are tied up somewhere else on another emergency call. That is just the nature of emergency medical services,” said Atkins. 

According Atkins, National EMS meets the required average response times.

According to Morgan County Dispatch, the average response time for Morgan County ambulances were: 8 minutes 58 seconds in 2017, 8 minutes and 55 seconds in 2016, and 9 minutes 28 seconds in 2015. Atkins did, however, concede, that mutual aid, calls for out-of-county ambulances that happen when Morgan County ambulances cannot respond at all, are not factored into National EMS’ review of ambulance service.  “If we can’t respond, we can’t factor that in to our response times,” said Atkins last year.

Donna Martin’s case was one of those instances in which both Morgan County ambulances could not respond at all and it took nearly a half hour for an out-of-county ambulance to arrive. 

Atkins said he would gladly provide another ambulance for the county should the commissioners order one, but believes the financial cost is just too high. 

“They just can’t afford it and the citizens don’t want to see their taxes go up that high,” said Atkins. “We will do whatever the county commissioners want us to. If they want, three, four or five ambulances, we would provide it. But the volume is just not there long-term to offset the cost.”

According to Mestres, securing another ambulance would almost guarantee an increase in property taxes. 

“A half a million dollars [for a third ambulance] would amount to a half mil increase to the millage rate,” said Mestres. “Ultimately right now, based off the data in their contract with us and the analytics they send to the county quarterly, National EMS is meeting, on average, those response times, for both Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls,” added Mestres.

Sims is hoping that if House Bill 264 passes, the quality of ambulance service will improve throughout the state and result in leadership that will solve long-wait times and secure more ambulances to underserved areas throughout Georgia. 

“My mother’s death, like so many other troubling episodes in virtually every corner of the state, could have been avoided, but was made possible by a grossly corrupted public health system that actually allows private ambulance providers to have a say in the contracting and delivery of medical services in our communities and state,” said Sims. “This month, a bipartisan coalition of some of the state’s biggest political and advocacy groups will come together at the capitol to champion common sense reforms to Georgia’s emergency medical services system in the name of families like mine,” said Sims.  “Georgia families have suffered long enough with substandard emergency medical assistance. It’s time the state legislature delivered on their promise of world-class care.”

To see Sims’ new commercial, visit The Georgia Ambulance Transparency Project’s Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/pg/EMSTransparency. 

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