Ga. city votes for private ambulance service over fire department
Critics say the deal leaves the city without oversight over EMS
By Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gold Cross EMS won an administrative victory over Augusta Fire Department on Thursday when a regional committee voted to give the ambulance company exclusive access to Augusta calls for emergency medical transportation.
Gold Cross CEO Vince Brogdon said the company "appreciates the vote" and promised service levels wouldn't decline. However, a critic of the company's performance, south Augusta neighborhood activist Sammie Sias, called it "a bad deal for the city" that leaves Augusta with no local EMS oversight.
A four-member zoning committee of the East Central Georgia EMS Council took little time to vote 2-1 to give the zone to Gold Cross, with members Courtney Terwilliger and Delores Moore voting in favor and Tommy Wolfe opposed. Chairman John Graham did not vote.
The committee vote marks a turning point in Gold Cross' nearly two-year push to become sole provider in Augusta-Richmond County, after serving as "co-zone provider" with the city since former city administrator Fred Russell requested Gold Cross be included in a shared arrangement in 2005.
Fire Chief Chris James raised issues around the same time about the city's self-renewing contract with Gold Cross, which he said lacked sufficient controls to ensure the Martinez-based company was performing its duties. It prompted the Augusta Commission to terminate the contract and put the service out for bids, but commissioners a few months later changed their minds and told Russell to negotiate a new contract with the firm.
Russell and assistant city attorney spent much of last year negotiating a new contract with Gold Cross, while the regional EMS council last summer reopened the "zone" to offers. The council voted 10-8 in November to award the zone to the city, which has two ambulances, but counts the contracted services toward its ability to cover Augusta.
Represented by former governor Roy Barnes, Gold Cross won an appeal from the state, which ordered the council to reconsider its nonbinding decision to give Augusta the zone using the criteria of economy, efficiency and the benefit to public welfare.
State Director of Health Protection Patrick O'Neal also instructed the panel to carefully consider conflicts of interest among its members, who include former and current Gold Cross employees and city employees with vested interests.
The small group voting Thursday said no conflicts existed. Terwilliger, the EMS director in Emanuel County, acknowledged Gold Cross is a corporate sponsor of the Georgia EMS Association, over which he is president, and the company at one time donated $750 in used equipment to Emanuel County.
Before the vote, Terwilliger said EMS companies such as Gold Cross "achieve excellence" in emergency care independently of county commissions.
"As much as I like my county commission, they don't know that much about ambulances," he said.
The determination requires approval by the full council, which meets May 1, but if Gold Cross gets the zone, it could terminate the contract with Augusta and run EMS service according to its proposal to the council.
Asked if Gold Cross could provide the service without its annual $1.08 million city subsidy, Brogdon said probably not. "It would be very difficult to make it without a subsidy," he said.
Commissioners reached Thursday, including Alvin Mason and Donnie Smith, said they will wait until the full council votes to decide what to do next.
Sias, who is running for a commission seat, said the company shouldn't have bid for the zone if it couldn't afford to cover it.
"It's a tragedy if Gold Cross is asking for the zone and they can't do it without a subsidy," he said. "I'm not going to support the city paying for a monopoly."
(c)2014 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)
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