The decision leaves uncertainty for EMS service in Augusta-Richmond County, where Gold Cross is under contract to provide the service for an annual subsidy of $1.08 million, to be reduced each of the contract’s three years.
Council member Richard Schwartz, who opposed awarding the EMS zone to Gold Cross, said he expects the Augusta Commission to consider terminating the contract to save funds, but doesn’t expect Gold Cross to necessarily provide the same level of service without the subsidy.
“If I were a commissioner, I would vote to cancel their contract now, because effectively Gold Cross is legally responsible, if the state accepts this recommendation,” said Schwartz, who is chairman of the Medical College of Georgia’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Hospitalist Services. ”The reality is, I don’t think Gold Cross would continue to provide that and I think we’ll find ourselves back here in the near future.”
The vote was the second taken by the council, after Gold Cross appealed a November recommendation to award Augusta the zone. State director of health protection J. Patrick O’Neal rejected that decision, saying the council didn’t consider “economy, efficiency and the benefit to public welfare,” as well as potential conflicts of interest, as required by law.
On Thursday, the council spent considerable time discussing who should recuse themselves from discussion of the item and voting, with nearly every member having had some connection to Gold Cross, the provider in Columbia and Jefferson counties and in Augusta since 2005.
After debate between former Gov. Roy Barnes, representing Gold Cross, and city attorney Jody Smitherman, five members recused themselves: Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, 911 Director Dominick Nutter, Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay, Gold Cross CEO Vince Brogdon and Carl Wagster.
The conflict criteria was limited to current employees of Gold Cross and Augusta. Council members not recusing themselves included one who worked for Gold Cross during the Masters Tournament and at least two who acknowledged receiving donated EMS equipment from the company.
Favoring Gold Cross, council Chairman Courtney Terwilliger said Augusta was misrepresenting what it could provide. The city has only two ambulances, but its bid included the services it has Gold Cross under contract to provide.
“They’re using our ambulances in the proposal,” said Brogdon, declining to specify what Gold Cross would do if Augusta terminated the contract.
“That’s a hypothetical question,” he said.
In closing statements, Barnes and Smitherman each tried to address the criteria of economy, efficiency and public welfare.
“If they went into the ambulance service, it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” Barnes said. “The county would have to buy and pay
for the same employees.”
In terms of efficiency and public welfare, Barnes said Gold Cross was “the best ambulance service around … Does it have a benefit to the public to interrupt what’s working?”
Smitherman raised the issue of local control, which would be lost if Gold Cross won the zone and the contract was terminated.
“Who’s better to do that than the people who are elected to do that very thing?” she said. “The state’s requirement is one ambulance and you respond to the calls. There’s no time requirement, no number of ambulances – so it’s much more efficient to have enforceable standards.”
After the meeting, Barnes said the public health district and zoning requirements were developed while he served in the Georgia Legislature to “take politics out” of the process.
“When it goes to saving lives, I want the one that’s best qualified, not the one that’s most politically connected,” Barnes said.