York County advances plan for new ambulance contracts

jzou@heraldonline.comOctober 22, 2013 

— Tensions ran high at the York County Council meeting Monday night where members voted to push forward the county’s contracts with volunteer ambulance services and Piedmont Medical Center, despite vocal opposition by some residents.

The contracts are an effort by the county to end its practice of dual dispatch, which sends two ambulances to the same 911 medical emergency in some urban areas, and has led to instances of racing ambulances that compete for health care dollars.

Negotiations also have focused on reducing response times for emergency medical care provided by both volunteer squads and PMC.

The council approved to move the contracts forward with a 5-2 vote. Two more council meetings will be held before the contracts are put to a final vote and can be written into law.

Council members had planned to put the measure to a final vote in the next meeting, but decided to postpone it until a separate public hearing could be held. A hearing was initially requested for Monday night, but was canceled because the county was unable to give 15-day notice of the hearing ahead of time.

“A public hearing at the third reading is very after the train has left the station,” said Margaret Blackwell, a Lake Wylie resident who was among several residents who showed up to voice opposition to the contracts.

River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS sent out an email last weekend rallying for public support, contending that the contracts do not improve overall patient care and are preferential to PMC, which is the county’s primary ambulance provider.

“It is a worse, less aggressive standard,” said Leo Yakutis, vice president of River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS. “You’re providing a contract that does not improve.”

The contracts have been on the negotiating table for more than eight months and restructure how response times are measured countywide. Response times for 911 calls are broken down geographically.

Under the new proposed contracts, response times are separated by medical urgency, regardless of whether the patient is in a rural or urban area.

Councilman Joe Cox, who chairs the committee that has led the contract negotiations, said he was displeased with the current contracts and voted against pushing them forward. “I’ve got too much land and not enough ambulances.”

Parts of Cox’s rural western York County district see an average response time that exceeds 15 minutes for 911 calls.

Councilman Bruce Henderson, who also voted against the measure, said he was concerned by the “monopoly” granted to PMC under the amended hospital contract and said the hospital isn’t adequately staffing county roads.

“We’re tying our hands,” said Henderson, who represents the Clover area. “They’ve never shown any willingness to put that many trucks on the road.”

But the other council members expressed concern over the feasibility of brokering a contract that enforces strict standards for PMC, which offers its services at no cost to the county.

“The county has to make a contract the hospital is willing to sign,” said council member Michael Johnson.

Others were simply concerned with the time frame of the negotiations, which have taken several months.

“This is getting extreme,” Chairman Britt Blackwell. “There’s only so many ways we can be accommodating.”

Jie Jenny Zou •  803-329-4062

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