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Sullivan County officials working on EMS plans

J. H. Osborne • Jan 29, 2017 at 5:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County officials said Friday they still are interested in having Sullivan County Emergency Medical Service (EMS) set up operations at the Mount Carmel facility which was formerly home to the defunct Church Hill EMS.

Mayor Richard Venable stressed, however, that the county would only work toward that outcome if it were an agreeable situation for all interested parties in Hawkins County.

The abrupt closure of nongovernmental Church Hill EMS several months ago caused a sudden increase in calls to government-operated Sullivan County EMS, Venable and Sullivan County EMS Director Gary Mayes have said in the past.

They said so again on Friday, as Sullivan County’s Pre-Hospital Ambulatory Care Board met for what is normally a routine first-of-the-year session to renew annual licenses for ambulance services authorized to operate in the county.

That board voted instead to extend the current licenses for 90 days. With the closure of Church Hill EMS, only two ambulance services remain in Sullivan County: county owned and operated Sullivan County EMS and privately owned Bristol Ambulance Service.

Both providers have seen a large uptick in call volume after Church Hill EMS’s closure.

That increase has been in convalescent calls — which is what Church Hill EMS primarily was licensed to run in Sullivan County — Venable said, with Sullivan County EMS perhaps answering 10 times as many of those calls as it had been doing prior to the Church Hill service’s sudden closure and bankruptcy filing.

For several years, Sullivan County EMS had not actively marketed itself for convalescent business, focusing on its primary function: emergency response.

Sullivan County EMS responds to all 911 calls in unincorporated portions of the county and also within the city of Kingsport, including that portion of the Model City in Hawkins County. In other words, emergency response is Sullivan County EMS’s main mission for the community. For the past two decades, by decree of the Sullivan County Commission, the EMS has been required to operate, in theory, as an “enterprise fund.” That means it is supposed to operate off the tax rate. The County Commission did, however, dedicate one cent of the property tax rate to the EMS last year.

Bristol Ambulance Service does not answer emergency calls. In business for 24 years, it has always focused on convalescent calls. Its owner told the board he is fully vested in continuing to be a good partner with the county to meet the call demand.

In the past couple of years, changes to insurance payment guidelines and practices have made it increasingly difficult for Sullivan County EMS to reach the break-even point, which has been its mandate from the Sullivan County Commission.

And because of the decline in revenue due to changes in insurance payments for emergency calls (for example, the charges often now are challenged by insurance providers over whether emergency transport was necessary — the patient could have been driven to the emergency room in a private vehicle instead, they argue), Sullivan County EMS already had been planning to go back into the convalescent call business, Venable told the Times-News a few weeks after Church Hill EMS closed.

The board’s vote Friday to extend current licenses 90 days rather than renew them for the whole year is a move designed to give Venable time to put together additional information for the board. The goal: see if any adjustments need to be made to ensure several things — emergency service is kept at the highest level, the demand for convalescent calls is adequately met, and both those things are achieved at the most efficient cost to taxpayers.

Board members asked for information on call volumes, a breakdown of emergency vs. convalescent calls, staffing and equipment levels, any estimates of how either might need to be increased, and revenue and costs in the months since Church Hill EMS closed.

Venable predicted it won’t take 90 days for the board to get all that information or his recommendation on what Sullivan County EMS’s best path forward should be.

After the meeting, Venable told the Times-News he and Mayes had been contacted a few weeks ago by Mount Carmel officials asking if Sullivan County EMS would be interested in running emergency calls out of the old Church Hill EMS location there.

Hawkins County EMS has been providing ambulance service to all of east Hawkins County including Mount Carmel since Church Hill EMS shut down in August. Hawkins County EMS is operating out of the Mount Carmel EMS station owned by the town. Church Hill EMS built that station on city property, but when Church Hill EMS folded, the property and the structure reverted to the city.

Venable, noting Sullivan County EMS currently needs to find a new location to serve the west end of Kingsport soon to replace its Wilcox Drive location, said he and Mayes expressed definite interest in discussing the possibility further, but they hadn’t yet heard back.

Venable said the Mount Carmel location would provide coverage for about half the area Sullivan County EMS needs to cover once it leaves the Wilcox Drive location.

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