By Tia Lynn Ivey
County Commissioners silently endured a tongue-lashing from an upset citizen at the last regular meeting on Tuesday, August 6.
“Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table and you all aren’t even giving us crumbs,” said Paula Sellers through tears. “You all should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Sellers took aim at the county commissioners for neglecting to address ambulance service reform during the nearly two-hour-long meeting.
“The word ‘ambulance’ was not mentioned once,” said Sellers at the end of the meeting.
Sellers criticized the commissioners for voting to adopt the rollback millage rate without first enhancing ambulance service in Morgan County.
“You all engaged in and asked questions about every other issue discussed here today except the millage rate,” said Sellers, who wanted to know if the rollback millage rate would prohibit the commissioners from spending money to beef up emergency medical response services in the county.
In recent months, Sellers has become an advocate for emergency medical service reform in Morgan County, after her husband, Scott Sellers, could not get an ambulance during a medical emergency. In May, Scott Sellers suffered severe seizures outside the couple’s home in Buckhead, but neither of Morgan County’s two ambulances could respond that day. Since then, Sellers has been calling for a third ambulance to be added in the county and for non-emergency transports to be halted. Sellers has joined other Morgan County residents, including Ellen Sims and Beth Hallman Herring, advocating for reform after experiencing long wait times for ambulances and were ultimately attended to by out-of-county ambulances. Ellen Sims’ mother, Donna Martin died last year after succumbing to complications from a wasp sting, and waited over 28 minutes for an out-of-county ambulance to arrive. Beth Hallman Herring, a nurse, sat with seven injured car crash victims on the side of Highway 83 for over 55 minutes before a Greene County ambulance arrived. Between According to Morgan County Dispaty, between November 2017 and 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 were either tied up on other calls or needed more assistance on the scene.
On Tuesday, Sellers once again appeared before the BOC to push for action. The BOC did not publicly address her comments during the meeting. After the meeting, County Manager Adam Mestres issues an update on the ambulance situation to the the Morgan County Citizen.
“Right now we are reviewing several options,” said Mestres. “We have continued and will continue to actively explore all options available in order to provide the best solution for Morgan County.
According to Mestres, right now the BOC is working with “ball park figures” for several different options available from the current ambulance provider, National EMS, which was bought out by Priority Ambulance last year. National EMS has been the county’s ambulance provider since 1988.
“The cost really just dependents on which combination of options we go with,” said Mestres. “The cost could be anywhere between $150,000 to $500,000. The lesser cost options will result in less availability of services, so it’s a balance we have to determine.”
Currently, Morgan County pays $289,000, plus fuel costs, for two ambulances from Priority Ambulance, which operate 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week.
Options currently being considered by the BOC to enhance emergency medical services in Morgan include adding a third 24/7 ambulance, which would cost $500,000. The least costly option would be the addition of a “Quick Response Vehicle,” which would not have transportation capability, but would feature additional trained medical personnel to respond to emergencies. Other options include a “van-type” ambulance with transportation capability, which would be cheaper than a traditionally “box-type” ambulance. The cost will also be affected by staffing options and hours of operation. The county could staff new emergency vehicles with paramedics or Advanced EMTs, who are a step below paramedics. The county could also choose to run the new vehicle seven days per week or five days per week, and could choose between running the vehicles 8 hours per day, 12 hours per day, or 24 hours per day.
“There are a lot of option to consider,” said Mestres. “But once we get some hard numbers we will have a public discussion about those options.”
Morgan County’s current contract with Priority Ambulance mandates that the ambulances respond to Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls in less than 9 minutes and 59 seconds, 90 percent of the time. At a meeting last month, officials from the county and Priority Ambulance argued that the two ambulances meet that threshold. But local critics argued that response time averages are skewed due the majority of calls coming from nearby Madison and pre-arranged hospital transfers, which receive far quicker response times than calls coming from further out in the county. Critics also noted calculated response time averages do not take into account the calls county ambulances cannot get to at all.
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.