ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County’s EMS exploratory committee reported Monday that the county should take over ownership and financial obligations of countywide ambulance service at an overall cost of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million over the next five years.
Finding a way to pay for the EMS takeover will fall on the shoulders of the Hawkins County Commission. Aside form finding a way to pay for EMS coverage, the commission is also working on a solution for the impending $2 million deficit in 2017-18.
On the heals of Church Hill EMS shutting its doors, in September the commission voted to create an exploratory committee to investigate the feasibility of creating a county-owned ambulance service.
Rogersville physician Dr. Blaine Jones who chairs the committee told the commission Monday the committee has recommended a county-owned ambulance service staffed by county employees and governed by an independent board of directors to ensure that politics is removed from management decisions.
Taking a line from the old Fram oil filter commercials, Jones told commissioners “You can pay for it now or you can pay for it later.”
(Click here to watch a video of Dr. Jones’ entire presentation to the County Commission.)
The committee recommendation involves dissolving the county’s current nonprofit service, Hawkins County EMS, and the county taking over the HCEMS facilities, equipment and financial liabilities.
The exploratory committee predicts that funding shortfalls for a county-owned EMS service could be as high as $1 million over the next five years, and modernizing and refreshing the ambulance fleet would be an additional $1.5 million over the next five years.
But that’s much lower than if the county was starting a new ambulance service from scratch, which the committee predicts would cost between $5 million and $7 million.
“We have talked with the Hawkins County EMS board about these things, and they’re ready right this minute for you guys to say, ‘yes, we’ll do it,’ ” Jones said. “We want to provide for the residents of Hawkins County the most stable, economical, and ready-to-respond EMS that we can have. We’re looking at Hawkins County investment of $1.5 million to $2.5 million maximum over the next five years to maintain local, respectable, hard working EMS service that is under county auspices with private oversight and no outside influences.”
The committee also provided several other options including leaving HCEMS as is with no change to the annual $30,000 county subsidy. The committee notes, however, there is “high risk for HCEMS closure in the very near future.”
The second alternative is to fully subsidize HCEMS with no operational changes. The committee calls that the “Band-Aid” approach.
There is also the alternative of turning the county over to a private, for-profit EMS service. Jones said other counties including Cocke, Unicoi and Shelby are regretting this alternative after their services decided to leave.
Private services can also set their own prices, conduct aggressive collections and “cherry pick” service areas within a county, providing better service to more affluent communities where households have better health insurance.
Although the recommended alternative would cost Hawkins County between $300,000 and $500,000 per year, Jones said the cost shouldn’t be the determining factor for commissioners.
Jones told commissioners he doesn’t want to see taxes increase in Hawkins County, but this issue is about people’s lives and not money or politics.
“I had a heart attack, and I almost died,” Jones said. “I had a car wreck, and that’s why I’m still sitting in this chair 30 years later. I almost died. I’ve got kids that I want protected. You all have got kids and grandkids and moms and dads and wives that you want protected.”
Jones added, “Don’t say you can’t afford it. In this situation, you can’t afford not to do it.”
The next step will be the scheduling of a joint meeting of the Public Safety Committee and Budget Committee as well as the Advisory Committee.