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Ill. officials end small-town ambulance service over staffing costs

New Athens officials are replacing the New Athens Ambulance Service with MedStar due to funding spent trying to increase staffing

By Lexi Cortes
Belleville News-Democrat

NEW ATHENS, Ill. — New Athens residents are asking how an upcoming change to contract their ambulance services out to a private company will affect medical emergency response times in their community.

Officials are negotiating the contract with MedStar Ambulance Inc. to take over for the taxpayer-funded New Athens Ambulance Service. Mayor Joe Behnken said the village can’t afford to be in the ambulance business anymore.

The changeover to MedStar is expected to happen in early June.

Residents are asking questions about the service they’ll be getting because MedStar’s closest base is in Freeburg, about 10 miles away. The New Athens Ambulance Service is located near the center of town at 301 S. Van Buren St.

But MedStar CEO Charles Kelley said response times are likely to get faster for New Athens residents. He plans to station a MedStar ambulance in New Athens and staff it 24 hours a day, seven days a week as the Illinois Department of Public Health requires.

The village has been losing money trying to staff the New Athens Ambulance Service 24/7 — about $15,000-$20,000 a month since September, according to Behnken. That’s when the Village Board of Trustees raised the pay for EMTs to try to increase the ambulance service’s staffing and comply with the state requirement for 24-hour coverage, the mayor said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about any recent communications with New Athens regarding ambulance staffing.

The average response times from the New Athens Ambulance Service have been about eight to 12 minutes with part-time on-call EMTs, according to Andrew Green , director of the ambulance service.

Kelley estimated that MedStar would be able to respond to emergencies in town within about six to eight minutes, with a slightly longer wait for more rural areas, in part because EMTs would be on duty in the ambulance rather than on call. MedStar also uses a GPS system that helps dispatchers know which of its system of ambulances, from Freeburg to Red Bud and Sparta, is closest to a particular scene, according to Kelley.

The national average response time to rural areas is about 14 minutes.

The New Athens Fire Protection District collects about $150,000 in property taxes each year for the ambulance service, which responds to calls in both New Athens and nearby Lenzburg. The service is also supported by the revenue it collects from bills each time someone uses the ambulance.

Behnken said the tax money and revenue couldn’t cover the cost of 24-hour staffing because the call volume is low and Medicaid and Medicare cap what they’ll pay for an ambulance bill. He said they average less than one call per day since the community nursing home New Athens Home for the Aged closed in 2022.

It amounted to a loss of $135,702 between September and April, according to Behnken.

“It’s an unsustainable service,” Behnken said. “So we got out of the service in order to keep our village solvent and so that our village doesn’t go bankrupt.”

Green is skeptical of the village’s financial outlook for the ambulance service. He said Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements for billing are typically slow.

“We knew that we were not super profitable,” Green said. "... I don’t think we should be that far off base.”

Under a new contract with MedStar , the tax money from the New Athens Fire Protection District would go to the company to provide ambulance services. MedStar will also respond to medical emergencies in Lenzburg like the New Athens Ambulance Service did, according to Kelley.

He said his company can survive the underpayment from Medicaid and Medicare by asking private insurers to pay a bit more, a process in health care known as cost-shifting.

“For longer than I’ve been alive it’s common to do cost-shifting,” Kelley said. “We just try to at least break even and many times that’s a struggle on its own.”

Green said he hopes village officials will consider other options in the future. He’d like to see the village create a new, larger tax district that would collect more money than the fire protection district can from residents in New Athens, Lenzburg and Marissa to support a public ambulance service again.

Kelley wants to see that, too. He said he has been pushing for Illinois legislators to change state law to require that local governments fund and provide ambulance services like they do for police and fire departments.

“It’s just very disheartening to see another ambulance service shut down,” Kelley said. "... I would love nothing more than to build them back up and hand it back to them and let them run it again.”

Behnken said the legislature could help communities by uncapping Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements for ambulance services.

(c)2024 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)
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