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Complaints compel county to consider ambulance options

Staff Written News

By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

After the latest round of complaints over ambulance service in Morgan County, county officials are planning to host a public presentation later this summer from National EMS Director Huey Atkins, who oversees ambulance service in Morgan County. The Morgan County Board of Commissioners has not settled on a date for the presentation, but are hoping to host it in mid-July. 

“We are exploring our options,” said County Manger Adam Mestres, after a public comment from Paula Sellers criticizing ambulance service at the last Board of Commissioners (BOC) regular meeting on Tuesday, June 4. “We are looking for the best remedy.”

After her husband suffered a severe seizure outside the couple’s Buckhead home in May and both of Morgan County’s ambulances were tied up on other calls and could not aid him, Sellers urged the BOC to add a third ambulance in Morgan County, no matter the cost. She argued that just two ambulances  for a population of nearly 19,000 in a county spread across nearly 350 miles. She also asked the county to halt Morgan County ambulances from providing non-emergency transports. 

“If you need raise taxes, raise them. If you need to restrict out-of-county transports, restrict them. There are private companies that do only transports which make a great deal of sense to me. We the people of Morgan County deserve better than this,” said Sellers. 

According to Mestres, cost is exactly what the issue boils down to and what the citizens of Morgan County are willing to pay in property taxes.

“A third ambulance will cost half a million dollars more,” said Mestres.  “We aren’t necessarily opposed to adding a third ambulance, but the community has to decide if they are willing to pay for it.”

Mestres also said that the internal review the county conducted revealed that National EMS meets the standard response times outlined in their contract. National EMS is required to respond Priority 1 calls in less than 9 minutes and 59 seconds at least 90 percent of the time. 

“National EMS meets all of its contractual obligations to us,” said Mestres. 

However critics point out, that when Morgan County ambulances cannot respond at all, those instances are not factored in to National EMS’s response time counts. 

Ambulance service in Morgan County has been under scrutiny since last summer, when local citizens complained of long wait times for serious medical emergencies. From November 2017 to October 2018, Morgan County Dispatch called out-of-county ambulances a total of 88 times to respond to emergencies when Morgan County’s two designated ambulances from National EMS were either tied up on other calls or needed more assistance on the scene. Two controversial cases prompted county official to address the matter and began an internal review. According to County Manager Adam Mestres, in November 2018, county staff pulled every call for an ambulance in Morgan County for the past 12 months and began reviewing response times from Morgan County’s designated two ambulances with National EMS and all out-of-county ambulances who respond to emergencies in Morgan County under mutual aid agreements.

Ambulance service in Morgan County 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. 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 claimed last year that the two ambulances are adequate to handle the vast majority of emergency medical needs 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.

“A half a million dollars 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.

Sisters Ellen Sims and Holly Martin have become vocal advocates for transforming Morgan County’s emergency medical services after their mother, Donna Martin, a 73-year-old Madison woman, succumbed to complications after a wasp sting, waited a harrowing 28 minutes for an out-of-county ambulance to arrive after her family called 9-1-1 when she collapsed on July 21.

In October, a local nurse, Beth Hallman Herring, began advocating for another ambulance after she witnessed seven injured car crash victims wait nearly an hour on the side of the Highway 83 before an out-of-county ambulance arrived. The victims included an infants, a teenager, and a college-aged woman bleeding from her stomach on the side of the roads while ants crawled all over her.  

For now, Mestres urged “public education” as a way to ensure ambulance service operates at its best. 

“I think the most important factor to consider is public education on EMS usage,” said Mestres. “There are many times when there are people calling for EMS and they don’t really need an ambulance response so that ties up our EMS system for the most critical times when there is an emergency and a person in our county truly need of those services, said Mestres. “We all have a duty as residents of Morgan County, we all have responsibility to help educate those around us about when to call 911 or when to call for ambulance, or any of emergency services.”

Morgan County’s population is estimated to be 18,412 residents, spread out across 347.35 square miles. Morgan averages around 2,500 emergency ambulance calls per year. National EMS handles emergency medical calls as well as hospital transfers from Morgan Medical Center. According to Morgan County Dispatch, in 2017, there were 2,557 calls for ambulances, 2,436 in 2016, and 2,655 in 2015.

After examining ambulance service in Greene, Putnam, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Rockdale, and Hancock counties, Greene County bears the most similarity to Morgan County’s makeup. Greene County runs three 24/7 ambulances plus a private service handles hospital transfers. Greene County’s population is about 1,000 less than Morgan County’s, with 17,281 residents spread across 387.44 square miles. Greene County averages around 2,900 calls for ambulances per year since 2016, a reduction from previous years since Greene County EMS stopped handling non-emergency transfers between hospitals. However, Greene County’s service costs nearly three times as much as Morgan County’s ambulance service.

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