Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>Cabot fears it might lack funds to pay ambulances

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

The recent announcement that Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services needs a $50,000 annual subsidy to keep providing ambulance service to Cabot residents has city leaders wondering how they will pay.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said Monday night during the regular city council meeting that MEMS has a membership fee that could pay the bill if enough residents would participate. If 1,000 families paid the annual $50 membership fee, the subsidy wouldn’t be necessary, he said.

He said Tuesday that as far as he’s concerned, the city must investigate every option, including starting a city-operated ambulance service using firefighters who already run backup for MEMS. Williams said such a venture would require more firefighters with additional training and more equipment, but it is an option that should not be immediately dismissed. In fact, when the city council voted early in 2005 to give MEMS a franchise to operate in Cabot, the plan was to have a city-operated ambulance service in place in three years. The MEMS board voted Sept. 25 to charge subsidies, beginning in January, in the areas where the service operates at a loss. In addition to Cabot, the MEMS board voted to charge Grant County $179,000, Sherwood $28,000, Lonoke $87,000 and Maumelle $63,000.

Jon Swanson, MEMS executive director, warned the Cabot City Council earlier this year that Medicare cutbacks were making it difficult to cover operation costs.

He told the council that to compensate, emergency medical technicians, not the more highly trained paramedics, would be used for non-emergency transports. Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson, a non-voting member of the MEMS board, said Monday night in answer to questions from Alderman Ed Long that he’s known about the decision of the board for almost a month.

But he declined to answer Long’s query about why council members had to learn about it from a newspaper article.

Williams said Tuesday that he had heard rumors about the subsidies but knew nothing official until Swanson came to see him last week. MEMS is not asking for a subsidy from Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway, Pulaski County or Faulkner County, the areas where the service is not losing money.

MEMS is not the only ambulance service in central Arkansas. The city of Jacksonville operates its own service.

Allied Ambulance Service, owned and operated by former Cabot Fire Chief Gary Meadows and his wife and Linda, provides emergency service to the cities of Ward and Austin and four rural fire districts.

“Medicare cutbacks are real, but at this time we’re not looking at any cuts in service our changing our pay scale,” Gary Meadows said. Meadows compared the cuts to the increasing price of diesel to run his three ambulances. “It’s the cost of doing business,” he said.

Service in Beebe and Searcy is provided by North Star EMS, which serves all of White County and part of Cleburne County. Donald Schull, who owns that company, said his rates went up Saturday but he has never asked for subsidies. Schull said despite diesel prices that have doubled and ambulances prices that have gone up 30 to 40 percent, the increase is the first since he opened business seven years ago.