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Medics fear for jobs in Mid Georgia Ambulance takeover

A partnership is looking more like a major change in ambulance services, and seems to follow a pattern of takeovers where other EMS workers were let go

By Andres David Lopez
The Macon Telegraph

MACON, Ga. — What was announced this month as a partnership is instead looking more like a big change in ambulance service in four midstate counties.

Mid Georgia Ambulance is planning to take over ambulance service for The Medical Center of Central Georgia, which is closing its ambulance division, according to Medical Center employees who wouldn't provide their names for fear of retaliation. If it happens, the change follows a pattern set by the private Mid Georgia Ambulance in other counties in the state.

In Upson and Mitchell counties, Mid Georgia's assumption of service there came as a surprise to residents, who worried about reductions in service, and to ambulance employees, who worried about their salaries and benefits.

"They kept telling us we were all going to have jobs," said Vicki Garrett, a former Upson Regional Medical Center ambulance employee who lost her job Jan. 1.

Garrett, 56, failed a Mid Georgia Ambulance physical for not being able to lift 180 pounds on a stretcher up stairs and was not offered a position. She had been an EMT for almost 20 years.

"I had done my job just fine," she said. "They have ways of not hiring the ones they don't want."

Mid Georgia Ambulance, which was founded in 1977 in Macon, had been trying to take over The Medical Center of Central Georgia's ambulance service for almost 20 years.

Right now, Mid Georgia Ambulance handles about one-third of the ambulance calls in Bibb County.

On March 1, Mid Georgia Ambulance will be the sole provider for Bibb and also will serve Jones, Baldwin and Twiggs counties, according to Medical Center employees.

Questions abound. Is Mid Georgia Ambulance prepared for the expansion? How many Medical Center employees will be affected? How did this deal come together? Will there be a change in the number of ambulance crews serving the area?

Repeated calls to Amy Abel-Kiker, Mid Georgia Ambulance's director of public relations, were not returned. And the Medical Center has declined to comment beyond an initial news release that left several unanswered questions.

Midstate county governments not notified of changes

The Macon-Bibb County government was not made aware of any upcoming changes in the county's ambulance service, said Commissioner Scotty Shepherd, chairman of the commission's Public Safety Committee.

On his own, Shepherd has been looking into ambulance service regulations out of concern about response times. An acquaintance of his recently reported a two-hour wait to be taken to a hospital when he suffered a seizure, he said.

Shepherd said he will work to resolve any problems arising from the closing of the Medical Center's ambulance division.

"It's going to have a tremendous effect on the region," he said.

In Jones County, Mid Georgia Ambulance already has saved the local government thousands of dollars, said Larry Childs, commission chairman.

Several years ago, the county paid the Medical Center $110,000 per year for ambulance service, Childs said, and it was only after Mid Georgia Ambulance, which has a base in Jones County, offered to do it for free that the Medical Center dropped the fee.

Since then there have been no problems with the ambulance service in Jones, Childs said.

Unaware that Mid Georgia Ambulance could be taking over, the Twiggs County Commission had already started taking bids from other ambulance providers.

The Medical Center does not have an ambulance base in Twiggs, and residents are interested in having a company establish one, said Commissioner Donald Watson.

"There's been a good bit of complaints in the arrival time with ambulances in some cases," Watson said.

Mid Georgia Ambulance in Mitchell and Upson

The Mid Georgia Ambulance takeover of service in Bibb, Twiggs, Jones and Baldwin follows the pattern of at least two other county service takeovers in the past two years.

In Mitchell County, Mid Georgia Ambulance replaced Mitchell County EMS in 2012.

Residents complained about the secretive nature of the transaction and a reduction in service, and EMTs and paramedics complained about losing their jobs, according to a report by TV station Fox 31 in Albany.

Upson County underwent a similar transition with its ambulance service this year, after the county commission switched the county contract from Upson Regional Medical Center to Mid Georgia Ambulance.

The county government had paid Upson Regional Medical Center at least $450,000 per year for the past four years and was facing a contract of more than $600,000 for 2014, said Rusty Blackston, commission chairman.

Because Upson Regional Medical Center could not lower the cost of service, the board awarded a five-year contract to Mid Georgia Ambulance for $300,000 per year, Blackston said.

Many former Upson Regional Medical Center ambulance employees who were hired by Mid Georgia Ambulance saw a reduction in salary, said Garrett, the former Upson Regional Medical Center ambulance employee who wasn't offered a job with Mid Georgia Ambulance.

Though the county dropped from four to three ambulance crews covering the area during the day, it will have three crews instead of two operating at night. And because Mid Georgia Ambulance operates in several counties, it has the ability to shift crews regionally depending on demand, Blackston said.

The county has had no problems with ambulance response times since Mid Georgia Ambulance took over Jan. 1, Blackston said.

A few disgruntled paramedics and EMTs may have lost their jobs in the transition, but the Upson County Commission had no control over that, he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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