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Court to hear Conn. town’s ambulance service dispute

Wethersfield officials, EMS association are at odds over the proposed replacement of Aetna Ambulance


The headquarters of the Wethersfield Emergency Medical Services, which is embroiled in a fight with the town’s administration over who will provide ambulance service in Wethersfield.

Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant

By Don Stacom
Hartford Courant

WETHERSFIELD, Conn. — In an uncommonly contentious hearing, Wethersfield’s town administration and its nonprofit ambulance service on Friday took turns swiping at each other’s performance and their plans for the future of emergency medical services in town.

The Wethersfield Emergency Medical Service Association accused Town Manager Frederick Presley of falsely claiming a community emergency when he petitioned the state to replace it with Aetna Ambulance as the primary provider of ambulance service in town.

“It’s time for the town to stop creating drama and creating fear in the citizens,” Mary Alice Moore Leonhardt, WEMSA’s attorney, told a state public health department hearing officer.

But Presley said WEMSA’s plan to overhaul ambulance operations starting this year had alarmed the public safety leaders in his administration because it couldn’t reliably handle mass casualty incidents.

“We were alarmed that it would potentially cause people to die,” Presley told said at a department of public health hearing.

Both sides on Friday appeared to be braced for a lengthy struggle, with the public health department scheduling two additional sessions in May where attorneys will present evidence and question witnesses.

Presley’s administration is asking the agency to revoke WEMSA’s certification to serve the town. WEMSA has held that designation for decades, and operated ambulance service for basic calls on a part-time basis while contracting out other times to Aetna.

Because it didn’t have staff paramedics, WEMSA also authorized Aetna to handle all of the town’s critical care calls that involve potentially life-threatening emergencies. In addition, WEMSA maintained a contract with Aetna to provide additional ambulances at large-scale emergencies like severe fires and multi-vehicle highway crashes where several victims need care at once.

Last year, though, WEMSA changed its all-volunteer model to a system with some paid staff. It has acquired a second ambulance, announced it would get a third, and notified Aetna that it would be answering most basic calls in town. WEMSA also negotiated a deal with East Windsor’s ambulance service to provide a paramedic to handle the critical care calls.

Presley told the hearing Friday that he was taken by surprise when WEMSA filed a new service plan early on the afternoon of Dec. 29 for operations. WEMSA’s arrangement would have ended Aetna service starting on New Year’s Day.

But Presley’s administration asked the company to stay on longer, and filed an emergency request for the public health department to designate a new primary provider in town — Aetna.

“WEMSA decided unilaterally to move on with a group (East Windsor’s ambulance corps) that we had not met with,” Presley said. “I decided to do what was best for the town.”

Presley said Friday that WEMSA’s plan would have just its one to two ambulances available. And if the East Windsor paramedic wasn’t available, municipal dispatchers would be responsible for calling nearby communities to help out in a mass casualty incident.

“This is a matter of life and death. With regards to heart attacks, strokes and motor vehicle accidents, minutes do matter,” said attorney Arnold Menchel of the Halloran Sage firm, which is representing Wethersfield.

WEMSA’s plan to have one basic care ambulance available around the clock with a second one sometimes available with a paramedic for more severe calls just wasn’t enough, Menchel said.

In his role as Wethersfield’s emergency services director, Presley filed an emergency request for the state to intervene, Menchel said.

But Moore Leonhardt noted that although the town’s original petition used the word emergency, a subsequent version that was written at the state’s recommendation dropped that word.

In a tense back and forth with Presley, Leonhardt repeatedly asked him whether he truly thought the situation was an emergency or not.

“On the petition you filed, you did not indicate an emergency,” she said.

“We were advised by the state not to do that,” he replied.

“Did you or did you not check off the box indicating an emergency?,” she pressed, eventually getting Presley to acknowledge the he hadn’t.

“Is the state telling you what to do?,” she asked.

“I always seek the advice of the agency responsible for these matters,” he replied.

At various points in the hearing she attacked Presley’s credentials to be in charge of emergency medical services, and suggested his administration had worked unfairly in favor of Aetna during the dispute with WEMSA.

But Presley has previously said WEMSA leadership simply wouldn’t communicate in the second half of 2023, giving him almost no information about its plans until the Friday before a holiday weekend — and just two days before the existing contract was due to expire.

Moore Leonhardt said Presley’s solution — putting Aetna in charge — would lead to higher bills for ambulance trips. A basic trip is nearly $150 more on Aetna than on the WEMSA ambulance, she said. Presley said many residents already have paid the higher Aetna rate because WEMSA crews weren’t available to staff the ambulance.

Presley countered that WEMSA’s new system for getting multiple ambulances to a major emergency would rely too heavily on police dispatchers — and could mean extra 10-minute, 20-minute or longer waits while paramedics brought ambulances for nearby towns.

Throughout the hearing on Friday, Moore Leonhardt objected to Menchel’s questions, frequently persuading the hearing officer to direct him to rephrase them. She noted formal exceptions to a number of the hearing officer’s decisions, appearing to lay the foundation for a possible subsequent appeal.

The session Friday consumed several hours but got to only the first witness, Presley. Menchel will be able to call further witnesses and Moore Leonhardt will be able to present a defense when the hearing resumes in May.

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