The future of county ambulance service has reached the table of the Calhoun Commission, but not without controversy.

The commission has expressed concerns for the future of Calhoun's emergency ambulance service for the last two years, commission president Kevin Helmick last year calling it "a house of cards," related to financial stability.

The commission heard a proposal last week by Minnie Hamilton Health System to provide the service, while Calhoun EMS representatives denied the financial problems, saying the issue is all about politics.

During a September meeting, commissioner Chip Westfall called the money problems "a crisis situation."

The Calhoun Commission is responsible to see that ambulance service is provided to citizens.

Commission President Kevin Helmick, who also serves on the ambulance board, said the EMS's stability continues to deteriorate, often unable to pay bills with laboring debt and two ambulances that currently need $10,000 in repairs to make them operable.

Helmick said, "We have reached a point where we need to look at options. There have been times when meeting payroll has been on the edge, and the agencies credit to get gasoline has been cut off."

"The situation is worsening for them to stay afloat," he said.

CEO Steve Whited of Minnie Hamilton Health System told commissioners that MHHS is willing to provide the service, with a major plus being that MHHS gets reimbursed 100% for calls from Medicaid and Medicare, related to their status as a rural healthcare provider.

Calhoun EMS is reimbursed at a much smaller rate.

That alone would make county ambulance service financially more viable, said Helmick, with MHHS agreeing with the commission to maintain a sub-station in southern Calhoun.

MHHS said they will offer employment to current Calhoun EMS staffers. Calhoun EMS has experienced a severe turnover of EMT's and drivers during the past two years.

Also MHHS would provide higher base wages and benefits for EMS employees. Now they have no benefits.

MHHS has been providing ambulance transport services for several years and provided mutual aid or call-out for Calhoun EMS.

MHHS has hired a new director for their current ambulance service, Brett Wellman. Wellman, according to Whited, has a vast knowledge of EMS, including working for HealthNet, and is a registered nurse and paramedic.

Whited told the commission that after a time, MHHS might not need county taxpayer money to keep the service going.

"My primary concern is to make sure the future of Calhoun County EMS is financially stable and that both ends of the county is equally covered and properly staffed at all times," said Helmick.

"EMS financial statements show that after payroll is met on October 15, there will be only about $2,000 left in the checking account with around the same amount owed in outstanding bills. And at least $45,000 is owed to lenders," Helmick said.

Calhoun EMS Director Josh Johnson says the issue with Calhoun EMS is not about finances, while saying it has always been difficult.

Lt. Sabrina May told state media, "This is what it boils down to. It's politics, it has nothing to do with finances."

EMS veteran Bobby Wade said, "One of the County Commissioners has a vendetta against us."

"The main concern for me is maintaining or improving the current service. It is all about the stability of finances and not the quality of service or personalities," said commissioner Chip Westfall.

Paramedic and EMS operations manager, Danny May told state media this shouldn't be how it is. "Now it just feels like the commission is making us beg to do our job and it just hurts... badly."

The commissioners agreed that Calhoun EMS has historically been dutiful in providing ambulance service to the county, although EMS workers have always been underpaid and without benefits.

Commissioners, after reviewing an audit in 2010 that showed EMS over $40,000 in the red, EMS director Johnson agreed to provide the commission with monthly financial statements.

During last weeks commission meeting, Johnson admitted he had failed to do so.

Johnson said the 2010 negative audit did not mean EMS was in trouble, after which commissioner Weaver said, "My experience says the numbers are red flags," indicating with the county budget it would be a major problem.

During a commission meeting earlier this year, Johnson told the commission his agency did not have to be accountable to the commission, during an effort Calhoun EMS was making to establish a sub-station in Wirt County.

Commissioner Weaver challenged Johnson on his position, saying "I [Weaver] represent the taxpayers and citizens of Calhoun County...county taxpayers support a levy to finance the ambulance operation."

Weaver further said, "The county (taxpayers) owns your ambulances, the building you operate in, pays your insurance costs, loaned you money and has given you money for operations," adamantly saying the county does have a vested interest.

"I can't understand why you are here, telling the commission the taxpayers have nothing in this," Weaver said.

During last weeks meeting, MHHS CEO Whited said, "Both organizations, Minnie Hamilton and County EMS, have an obligation to the community to provide the best health care services we can."

In past months, when Calhoun EMS was struggling to meet payroll, MHHS obtained an emergency $50,000 grant to keep them going.

Helmick told the commission earlier this year that a couple of administrative charges appeared to help the bottom line, including the retirement of the assistant director without a replacement and changing to a new billing company.

Helmick says those changes should have helped the bottom line, but EMS Director Josh Johnson put some employees on salary to be managers, increasing costs.

The commission has asked for a written proposal to be submitted by the hospital and has scheduled a meeting with EMS Director Josh Johnson, asking him to present a proposal how the service can be re-grouped to provide service to the county.

See related stories CALHOUN AMBULANCE SERVICE FACING FINANCIAL COLLAPSE - "House Of Cards" Says Commissioner Helmick, Using E-911 Addresses EMS Problem





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