SC ambulance service will stay open after losing county contract

Bamberg County announced that its contract with the service had been terminated, in part because it failed to provide the required activity and financial reports


By Dionne Gleaton
The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg, S.C.

BAMBERG, S.C. — A nonprofit ambulance service operating in Bamberg County since 1971 will remain open after its contract with the county was terminated, officials say.

Bamberg Rescue Squad Inc., which began as a volunteer rescue squad, received its charter in 1972. It began providing Bamberg County’s emergency 911 service as an independent contractor in 1997.

Bamberg Rescue Squad Inc., which began as a volunteer rescue squad, received its charter in 1972. (Photo/U.S. Air Force by Airman 1st Class Thomas Karol)
Bamberg Rescue Squad Inc., which began as a volunteer rescue squad, received its charter in 1972. (Photo/U.S. Air Force by Airman 1st Class Thomas Karol)

Bamberg County announced Sept. 2 that its contract with the service had been terminated, in part because it failed to provide the required activity and financial reports as specified in its contract.

The move was specifically made after an official request for the documentation made in June 2019 went unanswered, a county press release said.

Anderson-based Medshore Ambulance will serve as the county’s ambulance service provider beginning Oct. 1.

After the Bamberg Rescue Squad’s contract was terminated, the county had a responsibility to “provide continuous EMS services to its citizens,” County Administrator Joey Preston said.

Medshore Ambulance was hired at $450,000 a year, the same as Bamberg Rescue Squad, he said.

Another EMS provider had to be found quickly and was obtained through an emergency procurement, Preston said. Bamberg County deems emergency procurements are necessary when supplies, equipment or services are needed to prevent delays in the work of departments that may vitally affect the life, health or general welfare of the citizens of Bamberg County.

It was explained during a Sept. 9 Bamberg County Council meeting that after one year, a competitive bidding process will be implemented for companies, including the local rescue squad, to apply to provide the county with EMS services.

Preston said, “Medshore was already Bamberg County’s secondary provider for EMS services and had been for some time through a mutual aid agreement between Bamberg Rescue Squad and Barnwell County Medshore.”

He said it made sense to enlist the services during an interim period because they were already operating within Bamberg County.

The contract

Bamberg Rescue Squad Capt. Roger Hughes said the last written contract he signed with the county was in 2012.

It was a contract between the Bamberg Rescue Squad and the county to provide ambulance emergency and non-emergency medical services and included the signature of then-interim county administrator Booker Patrick. He said that contract actually stipulated that the squad was to receive $475,000 a year, not $450,000.

“I think that’s probably our last contract. They failed to give us a new contract every year, but we’ve still been providing the service under the same contract and nobody’s ever said anything. We’ve just been providing the service,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the county has not fulfilled its own contractual obligations. He also disputed claims that the squad has outdated equipment, citing a $20,000 LIFEPAK 15 monitor/defibrillator that the squad owns.

“That’s brand new ... and we’ve got to have three of them. And if the county had kept up what they agreed to pay us, we wouldn’t be in the crunch that we’re in. But they have been as much as five and six months behind on the payments,” Hughes said.

“The contract stated that we’re supposed to receive $39,583.34 a month for 12 months, and it’s supposed to be paid on the ninth day of every month. And right now we’re four months behind.”

He added, “It’s supposed to be renewed every year, and the thing is they’re on us for breach of contract.”

Preston, who became administrator in 2012, said the squad will get the money owed it for June, July, August and September.

“Before I came here in 2012, the county cut it back to $450,000. Since I’ve been working here, the county’s been paying them $450,000. And the reason that happened is because, at that time, the county had to cut back on what it was spending because they were going into bankruptcy, or having a tough time paying their bills,” Preston said.

“So the Bamberg Rescue Squad has been well aware since prior to 2012 that they were going to get $450,000 a year. Period. So they know what they’ve been getting,” he said.

Preston said it had been the responsibility of Squad Operations Manager Martha Hammett to retrieve the organization’s monthly payments from County Treasurer Alice Johnson.

He said he instructed Johnson on Sept. 9 to “go ahead and release everything now, whatever is owed to them.”

Hughes said, “I didn’t know we were supposed to go to them every month on the ninth and try to collect it. They were supposed to send us a check.”

As far as the 2012 contract, Preston said, “I don’t know what they’re looking at, but the contract that we had with them is dated 2007. The contract that I’m looking at is probably the same document probably with different dates, more than likely. Booker probably signed a new one whenever they dropped down to $450,000 from $475,000 and never kept a copy in their file.

“But that doesn’t matter. The thing is this: They never complied with their contract. I’ve been here for seven years, and we’ve been asking for this information for at least seven years. I don’t know what happened before I got here, and we’ve got nothing.”

Preston said the failure to provide required activity and financial reports was admitted by the squad during a Sept. 4 meeting that he and Council Chairman Trent Kinard had with Hughes, Hammett, squad Lt. Bill Kilgus and Dr. John Ross, the squad’s medical control officer.

“Martha knows. They never turned in any of that. (That’s) why we’re no longer doing business with Bamberg. At one time the county gave them $475,000 per year of taxpayer money. Now we give them $450,000. We give them more money than any other outside agency in the county budget,” he said.

Hammett said the county’s claims of the squad failing to turn in required reports is not completely false.

“When we first started back in 2000, we did have an audit. And I did give them some financial reports. They were not complete because I didn’t have time to get financial reports prepared for them every month completed. I did give them some information. This was before Joey ever came,” she said.

She said copies of log sheets had also been given to then-County Emergency Services Director Sharon Hammond.

“She was the one that I was told to give them to. She was with the emergency management division. And I did give her copies of all of the logs. Then when she retired, and before (current County Emergency Services Director) Brittney (Barnwell) came in, I was told that they didn’t need them. Nobody ever did anything with them. So I just quit taking the time to copy them and get them up there to them. And they never asked me for them anymore,” Hammett said.

‘We will still be viable’

Preston said the Bamberg Rescue Squad Inc. will still be serving the community.

“As they told us, they’ll continue to be in business. They won’t be getting 911 calls unless Medshore does not have an ambulance available. They’re here. They’re not going anywhere. Essentially what we’re getting is a better service, new equipment, better-trained employees for the same money in a regional system. They have lots more assets to deploy than what we currently have right now,” Preston said.

“I understand Medshore is negotiating or talking to (The Regional Medical Center) about taking over their transports from the free-standing emergency room. They’re already doing a lot of them now. They deliver from Barnwell to the free-standing emergency room,” the administrator said.

The opening of the Bamberg-Barnwell Emergency Medical Center was celebrated earlier this year. It is located between Bamberg and Denmark.

Hammett said the Bamberg Rescue Squad will continue its services through its existing mutual aid agreements.

“We will still be viable. We will be doing some mutual aid calls for” Orangeburg and Allendale counties, she said.

“We will let them know that if they get an overflow, if they’ll call us, we will come over and provide the 911 service. We can get to anything in Cope or on this side of Orangeburg most of the time quicker than they can,” she said.

Hammett said the squad has 29 employees on its roster, including part-time and full-time employees, and three ambulance trucks that had been operating in the cities of Bamberg, Denmark and Ehrhardt.

Hughes said the trucks in the Ehrhardt and Denmark stations, which the county owns, will be brought up to the squad’s headquarters at 2378 Main Highway in Bamberg.

“The trucks and everything in the Ehrhardt and Denmark stations belong to us. So our plans are to pull those trucks back and we’ll be operating out of the Bamberg station. We’ve got four bays back here. We also got extrication,” he said.

Hammett said, “We just signed an agreement with the Bamberg Fire Department. They’re going to work with us. Because of lack of personnel, it’s been hard with having people that are working on the ambulance and not having anybody to actually take the equipment truck out.

“So now we’ve signed an agreement with Bamberg Fire Department that they will have somebody to respond and pick up the truck and take it out to a scene for extrication.”

When the contract with Bamberg County ends, Hughes said the squad will be able to handle more non-emergency transports of patients, for example, between hospitals.

“We can do that because we won’t have to maintain a 911 truck in the county. … If Medshore is going to have the 911 in Bamberg County, then if we get a call to transport somebody from one hospital to another, then we can do it,” Hughes said.

Hammett said squad will have to primarily rely on money received from billing insurance companies for services.

“Patient pay? It would blow your mind if you know how much we write off every year. If you don’t have anything, you can’t pay anything,” she said.

Hughes said the squad had to write off a total of $168,424 in bad debt in 2018, with the amount totaling $312,039 in 2016.

Hammett said, “With Bamberg County being a 501-C3 organization, we do not make money. Every penny we get goes back into the squad. We draw a salary, but that’s so we can survive just like everybody else that works here can survive. But there is no money to be made in emergency 911 service. Period.”

‘It’s up to the administrator’

Bamberg County Council members have mixed views on the termination of the squad’s contract.

Kinard said all council members were aware of the contract change.

“It’s up to the administrator, who at any time can change the ambulance service. It is not up to county council. It is up to the administrator to duly do stuff like that. It’s in his job description. So he is the person that would actually change ambulance services here and there. You could see there were some deficiencies going on and because of that, we changed,” Kinard said.

Kinard said the decision to end the contract was not personal.

“I felt like the lone holdout because I hated to see it switch. But Martha and I have spoken, and a bunch of the people on there have spoken. Again, it just hurt me because I’ve known them since childhood,” he said.

He feels Medshore will provide adequate service.

Council Vice Chairperson Sharon Hammond, the county’s former emergency services director, said she said did not agree with terminating the county’s contract with the squad.

“They live in Bamberg County. Their business is in Bamberg County. I want to see businesses in Bamberg thrive. I just think we have to give them something extra to make sure that they thrive and that their business thrives,” Hammond said.

She added, “I’m not sure exactly how it helps the people here. I don’t like taking food out of the mouths of the people in the county.”

As far as the missing or delayed reports, Hammond said, “It’s been like this a long time before I got on council. That’s the factor. If they hadn’t been turned in in years, why is it so important now? I don’t understand it.”

Hammond said while inadequate reporting was a problem, “I know they probably need some help or maybe some more guidance.”

She added, “I hope that they continue to exist as an EMS service. I mean, they’ve been in Bamberg County for a while, and I want to see them exist. I mean, we’re losing so many businesses already. We need to do everything we can to help our businesses.”

Preston said, “How many years do we have to give them to do what they’re supposed to do? That’s what amazes me. ... They have failed to apply for EMS grants through the county to the state except for one time in the last seven years. They have left over $10,000 a year on the table because they won’t apply for those grant funds in order to buy modern equipment.

“My theory is that maybe because of accountability. If they’re not accountable to the county and how they spend their $450,000, I mean, think about it. If we give $450,000 in taxpayer money to an outside agency and they will not provide us with the contracted audited financial statements, or give us any information about how they spent that money, you’re going to get in trouble for that.”

The administrator said the reason why the squad had not previously landed in trouble is because he “never pushed the issue.”

“I could push the issue, but I have not pushed it. And that’s why I wrote her the letter” on June 6, the administrator said.

“I said, ‘We haven’t gotten this information.’ It fell on dead silence. Nothing,” Preston said.

Hammett said, “I got the letter. It was after June 7, and they wanted everything turned back into them by the 17th of June. You can’t get all that stuff together in 10 days. That’s ridiculous.”

The administrator said Medshore indicated the Bamberg County Rescue Squad employees can apply for Medshore jobs.

Councilman Clint Carter said he believes Medshore’s service will be better.

“I think it’ll definitely have to be better. We’re going to get three new ambulances is my understanding, and they’ll be staffed. And we had some issues with them meeting criteria in the contract, the old company, and that’s part of the reason for the emergency change,” he said.

Hammett said, “The thing that really gets you is that when they put us down, talking like we don’t have good equipment and we don’t have good trucks. We’ve got old trucks, but those trucks are in good running condition. We’ve spent a lot of money on them, we just spent about $33,000 on Medic 3’s truck. So that truck’s in good shape. But we can’t afford to buy new trucks because we don’t get enough money from the county. Now we’re getting none.”

Councilman Larry Haynes said response time had been an issue with him.

“Especially like out where I live in the country, you know, sometimes we call the ambulance, and it’s like 15, 20 minutes before an ambulance gets out there. With my sister, before she passed away, we called the ambulance. I beat the ambulance to my sister’s house and was there at least 10 minutes before the ambulance even got there. Maybe if they would have gotten there earlier, maybe she would have survived. Who knows? But that was one of my things,” he said.

Hughes said, “It upsets me highly for somebody to get up and run us down as hard as we work and strive to save lives. That’s been our main goals, to do everything we can to help people, to get them transportation to the hospitals.

“We have a bunch of calls that’s bull. It’s nothing – a broken toenail or a headache. It’s nothing to it, but we still have to respond. Every time we get a 911 call, we got to respond.”

‘The number one priority’

Founded in 1976, Medshore Ambulance provides emergency and non-emergency medical transport services to more than 100,000 patients in the state each year. The company currently operates 100 emergency vehicles in 17 counties with more than 520 employees.

Medshore was the first ambulance service provider in the state to achieve accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services.

Priority Ambulance spokesperson Amanda Jennings said the Knoxville, Tennessee-based company owns Medshore. It provides emergency and nonemergency medical care in 10 states.

“They joined the Priority Ambulance family of companies in 2017. ... We are the largest private ambulance provider in both South Carolina and Georgia,” Jennings said.

Medshore General Manager Josh Shore said the company was approached by Bamberg County, “to do an emergency takeover on Oct. 1 to make sure there was no lapse in coverage for EMS.”

It’s going to be serving the county with the equivalent of 2-1/2 trucks.

“We currently have three stations that we’ll be utilizing. One is going be in the city of Bamberg, one will be in the Denmark area and one will be in the Ehrhardt area,” he said.

Shore said some Bamberg Rescue Squad employees have already put in applications for jobs.

“Right now we’re in the process of having an ongoing (new hire) orientation with the employees that have put in applications. Currently, I think we’ve had a total of seven employees. It could be more than that that just haven’t gone through the orientation yet, but that’s where we stand right now,” he said.

“Once they complete that classroom portion, they’ll be working with field training officers within our Barnwell division right now to kind of get some experience of how we do day-to-day operations. And then hopefully by Oct. 1 they can be working in the Bamberg area.

“What we promised the county is everyone that is working with Bamberg Rescue Squad that wants to come work with us will bring over their seniority as long as they meet our standards with our background checks and all that type of stuff,” Shore said.

Preston, a former Anderson County administrator, said he doesn’t have ties to the new Anderson-based ambulance service.

“They did the urban area of Anderson when I was there, and they still do. They did it before I got there, they did it while I was there and they did it after I left. They continue to do it. ... I was not involved in them at all in coming here. Barnwell County is the county that actually brought them here.

“Barnwell selected them whenever Williston had its issues. Then Medshore became the backup for Bamberg Rescue Squad. So Medshore is already here. It’s not new. Medshore is already running 911 calls here in this county. They also took over (transports for) the nursing home here in Bamberg ... a few weeks back,’ he said.

“Just because I worked and lived in Anderson didn’t have anything to do with anything. Anderson is a big place, and there’s a lot of businesses that come out of Anderson that work everywhere,” the administrator said.

Preston said, “The number one priority is to make sure the people of Bamberg County get the best possible EMS service available for the money. That’s the number one priority and, with that, accountability.”

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©2019 The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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