4 Pa. area ambulance companies join forces to deal with higher costs, EMT shortage

Three non-profits and a private service started by volunteer companies operate as one unit, but "this isn't a merger"

By Chuck Biedka
The Valley News-Dispatch

PITTSBURGH — Four Alle-Kiski ambulance companies are eight months into a joint operating agreement to deal with higher costs, lower insurance reimbursements and a shortage of medics.

The agreement involves three nonprofits — Vandergrift and Oklahoma ambulances and Freeport Emergency Medical Services — and the for-profit C&S Ambulance. The nonprofits were started many years ago by volunteer fire companies.

The four are sharing an operations manager, but they separately pay for him. And they won't share revenue, said operations manager Tom Shank.

“The companies are retaining individual identities and operate as one unit but this isn't a merger. It's a cooperative agreement,” said C&S co-owner Jim Caporali.

The agreement seeks to save money by jointly purchasing uniforms and supplies, and possibility liability insurance.

“It's too early to tell how much money is being saved,” said Shank, who just started in the post last month.

The ambulance services employ paramedics and emergency medical technicians as well as four registered nurses with special EMS certification. The companies operate 13 ambulances, five wheelchair vans and one specialized rig to handle heavy patients.

The medics will be able to work for the other ambulance services and C&S, said Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a Freeport firefighter and the cooperative's business manager. She said the agreement is making it easier for the ambulance services to provide staffing for all shifts.

Finding staff and sufficient operating cash are priorities. EMS is a profession that requires years of training, testing and certification and workers must deal with burn-out.

“There is a tremendous shortage of EMS personnel. It's a hard job, the hours are long, and they aren't paid what they often should be paid,” said Shank, who has more than 20 years of experience in Lower Burrell and New Kensington.

EMS's changing requirements are putting more pressure on nonprofits and even some for-profits.

“Years ago, we had people who were basically volunteers. Then it became a second job. Now everyone wants it as their primary job and I don't think there are enough of those jobs. So medics work at two or more services,” Caporali said.

Many nonprofit ambulance services can't provide enough hours to pay paramedics and emergency services technicians enough to work at only one place. Increasingly, it's also hard to find enough emergency services workers. Then there are basic costs.

Vandergrift, Oklahoma and Freeport spend about $400 every time an ambulance and crew answers a 911 call.

At the same time, the services receive about $300 on average from insurance companies, Shank said.

The remaining $100 must be made up from subscriptions or donations.

“Occasionally, there is also a government grant” to the nonprofits, Shank said.

Vandergrift officials said the borough annually gives $6,000 to Vandergrift No. 2.

Oklahoma and Freeport boroughs don't currently contribute to ambulance service expenses, Fitzgerald said.

Copyright 2016 The Valley News-Dispatch

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