Augusta narrowly maintained a level of control over its ambulance service Thursday when a regional council voted 10-8 to designate the consolidated government as the EMS “zone provider” in Augusta-Richmond County.
Current provider Gold Cross EMS also bid for exclusive access to the zone and plans to appeal the council’s decision to the Georgia Department of Public Health, CEO Vince Brogdon said.
“Our goal for acquiring the zone was to protect our business, our employees and the community,” Brogdon said. “We’re kind of left hanging, and we’ve got millions invested.”
Martinez-based Gold Cross has held the ambulance contract in Augusta since 2006 as a “co-zone provider” with Augusta. The city runs a few ambulances, but Gold Cross handles most calls for emergency medical service and receives an annual subsidy under the contract to cover the care they provide to indigent patients.
The vote Thursday ended the uncommon “co-zone provider” arrangement, the only one of its kind in Georgia besides an Athens, Ga., agreement between two hospitals that includes a call distribution plan, according to Ernie Doss, the Region 6 EMS program director.
The council opted in August to reopen the zone to bids in part because Augusta and Gold Cross couldn’t agree on a distribution plan for calls for service.
On Thursday, the council declined to consider a bid from Priority Care EMS, which sought to serve a five-mile radius around substations on Deans Bridge and Pleasant Home roads. The council did not want to create multiple zones, Doss said.
Voting against the bid award Thursday was former Augusta Emergency Management Director Pam Tucker, now director of Columbia County’s Emergency and Operations Division and manager of that county’s ambulance contract.
Tucker’s no vote was “basically because Gold Cross is our private ambulance service, and I am so happy with the service they provide, the personnel that they have, all the paramedics, the equipment, the latest technology,” she said. “They do everything in that contract.”
The council did not consider a recent Augusta Commission decision to renegotiate a contract with Gold Cross, Tucker said. City Administrator Fred Russell has said that agreement is being finalized, but Brogdon said Thursday that it had not yet been, creating uncertainty for the company.
The appointed council does not record how its members vote, only abstentions. With six abstentions, including three for no known reason, the vote could have easily gone another way.
Abstaining were Gold Cross employees Brogdon and Carl Wagster; Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay; Jenkins County EMS Director Henry Young; University Hospital EMS liaison Jennifer Weeks and Augusta Fire Chief Chris James.
Asked by Brogdon to abstain, James commented on the irony of there being only one Augusta representative – 911 Director Dominick Nutter – voting Thursday on who provides the lifesaving service in Augusta-Richmond County.
The city’s proposal to the council guaranteed 240 ambulance hours a day, with a minimum of six ambulances during non-peak hours and a minimum of 10 during peak hours. Gold Cross’ bid specified keeping eight to 15 ambulances in service, without reference to hours.
The city’s bid of a range “allow(s) our subcontractor to have leeway to meet peak demand,” said Jody Smitherman, the city attorney working on the issue.
James last year pushed the commission to re-examine the agreement with Gold Cross, and commissioners voted to put it out for bids.
Richmond County Neighborhood Association Alliance President Melvin Ivey, now a candidate for the District 4 commission post, started a petition against the “monopoly” that demanded a contract with specific call priority definitions lacking in the existing contract.
Earlier this year, however, commissioners cited satisfaction with Gold Cross’ performance when they authorized Russell to renegotiate a deal with the company.
Smitherman said Augusta sought to win the zone to hold its contracted provider accountable. The city has no issues with Gold Cross’ performance but wants “to ensure that the citizens are provided contractually-required response times and contractually-required minimum numbers of ambulances, and that there’s a mechanism to require those minimums.”