Council again receives Augusta’s request to reopen EMS zone

Augusta’s five-year dispute with its current ambulance provider turned another corner Thursday with provider Gold Cross scoring a re-do of a December action by the Region 6 EMS Council.

 

The result – to refer Augusta’s request to reopen the EMS zone to a council zone subcommittee for consideration – was the same as in December, although no vote was taken Thursday. Council Chairman and Augusta Fire Chief Chris James agreed to recuse himself during the matter, and his only available substitute under council bylaws, Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Weeks, was out due to flu.

Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias said the city wants to reopen the zone due to concerns about its citizens.

“Let me make one thing very clear. The city of Augusta has a population of about 200,000 people,” he said. “On any given day we may surge up to 350,000, or maybe 400,000, depending on which event is going on in the city of Augusta.”

After Sias’ presentation Augusta 911 Director Daniel Dunlap, one of 23 council members present Thursday, moved to reopen the zone effective April 13 under the council’s criteria of “economy, efficiency and benefit to the public welfare.” James, however, urged that it not be seconded and instead passed the city’s letter on to the chairman of the council’s zone subcommittee because no one was able to preside over the action.

Dunlap said after the meeting he made the motion because the process was going to take months, or years, to complete and Augusta needs the zone opened sooner.

Dunlap said Gold Cross isn’t properly equipped to handle EMS calls because it lacks the 911 equipment that obtains a caller’s location and must rely on city 911 dispatchers to provide it over a basic phone line.

Gold Cross CEO Vince Brogdon defended the service at the meeting, saying it had received no “substantiated material complaints” about the service. He said reopening the zone will hurt its EMT and paramedic workforce.

The council struggled with James’ role both as chairman and head of the entity driving the push to reopen the zone, with former chairman Gary Pinard saying he feared acting on zoning decisions due to the litigation.

The council is the “local coordinating entity” for zone decisions, which require approval by the state department of public health. But, on several occasions the has been denied representation by the Georgia Attorney General’s office because it isn’t considered a state agency, Pinard, James and member Courtney Terwilliger noted.

AUGUSTA AMBULANCE BACKSTORY

The city of Augusta continued a long tradition of local Georgia governments struggling with their regionally-assigned ambulance providers when city leaders voted last year to ask the Region 6 EMS Council to reopen the city’s “zone” to new providers.

The action followed several years of sparring with current provider Gold Cross, which won the designation of zone provider in 2013 after the council ended a shared zone arrangement between the city and Gold Cross. In response, the Augusta Commission voted in 2016 to eliminate the city’s ambulance subsidy because the Martinez firm can now operate without a contract and subsequently would not agree to the city’s new terms.

Since losing the subsidy Gold Cross has prompted complaints by billing for services said to previously be paid from the subsidy. But when Fire Chief Chris James, who now chairs the regional council, pushed the matter on the council in December, Gold Cross filed suit and got a judge to postpone the action for two months.

The city has argued it needs greater control over the life-saving service, and appears to be increasing its ability to provide it in-house, with the purchase of ambulances, dedicating a staff attorney to fire department issues and most recently, seeking bids for ambulance billing services.

 

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