Medical center to take over Tenn. county's ambulance service

The agreement is "practically a done deal," but some are concerned that the hospital filed for bankruptcy last year


By Tyler Jett
Chattanooga Times

WALKER COUNTY, Tenn. — The price tag for Walker County's ambulance service sits somewhere between free and $2 million.

When the governing body of Hutcheson Medical Center voted to take over the county's operation recently, Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said, the hospital's leaders agreed to shell out seven figures. She said the arrangement is tentative, but that it's practically a "done deal."

Multiple members of the Hospital Authority of Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties, however, told the Times Free Press that Hutcheson isn't buying the ambulance service — they say they voted to take over the operation for free.

Heiskell said there should be no confusion: "They knew how much I wanted for it."

Dade County Executive Ted Rumley countered: "Our board members said that Walker County isn't selling it to anybody. They're giving it to the hospital authority. There's no money exchanged."

Either way, Heiskell said, the county's paramedics will begin working for the hospital Oct. 1. The services are not expected to change, though some employees have privately expressed concern about working for a hospital that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November with $80 million in liabilities.

Now the hospital takes over an operation that consistently loses money.

From 2010-14, Walker County's EMS service lost an average of $136,657 per year, county financial documents show. That does not include money in reimbursements for damaged equipment or Walker County's cash transfers from the general fund to the EMS fund to make ends meet.

The documents also do not include certain other expenses, Walker County Finance Officer Gregory McConnell said. The county's road department now covers maintenance. The fire department covers overhead expenses. And sales tax revenue covers major equipment purchases.

Once the hospital takes over, it will have to pay those expenses.

Hutcheson CEO Farrell Hayes did not return multiple calls or an email seeking comment this week. But on the local cable access channel UCTV on Wednesday night, he said ambulances with the word "Hutcheson" on them are "a rolling billboard."

He also hinted that the hospital running the ambulances will deliver more patients to Hutcheson who otherwise would have gone to a Chattanooga hospital.

Walker County has been operating ambulances since Hutcheson dropped the service seven years ago, forcing paramedics to work for other groups in the region.

"When you get out of the ambulance business, you fire 100 EMTs," he said. "Those 100 EMTs are working for the people still serving your area. They're not happy with you. That's what [former Hutcheson CEO] Charles Stewart faced."

Catoosa County Attorney Clifton "Skip" Patty said his commissioners are concerned about the deal. Catoosa County paid about $3.5 million in January to Regions Bank and Erlanger because Hutcheson didn't have the money to pay back loans to the bank and the hospital.

County commissioners want Hutcheson to pay them back eventually, Patty said, and an ambulance service that loses money won't help. Plus, the hospital doesn't have the ambulance service in the two other counties. Dade County pays Puckett EMS about $225,000 per year, and Catoosa County pays Angel EMS about $150,000 per year.

"The board is very concerned that the Hospital Authority would take on a service that is losing money for Walker County when no arrangements have been made to pay Catoosa County for the Hospital Authority debt that Catoosa County paid," Patty wrote in an email.

Hutcheson used to operate ambulances in all three counties. But in 2009, Stewart dropped the service because it cost too much money. Dade and Catoosa county leaders hired private companies to provide paramedics, and Walker County officials hired about 30 Hutcheson paramedics to set up their own service.

Six years later, Heiskell says the ambulance program is too expensive. She began negotiating with Angel EMS at the beginning of the year, but she said she was not satisfied with the company's bids. The cheapest service would cost $500,000, she said.

Dewayne Wilson, CEO of Angel EMS and the Walker County coroner, said Heiskell's claim is not true. He said he negotiated with Heiskell for seven months before she agreed to pay $225,000 for the service.

"Only to be blind-sided by the Hutcheson surprise," he wrote in an email Wednesday.

Heiskell said she didn't know Hutcheson's leaders were going to offer to take back the ambulance service until hours before it happened. She doesn't know if the vote was on the meeting's agenda. She believes the hospital authority offered to take the service because it will help Hutcheson attract a buyer for the hospital.

Like Wilson, Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said he did not know the hospital was going to absorb the ambulance service until after the vote.

"I was caught completely off guard by the decision," he wrote in a memo to the county's EMS employees the day after the vote. "I can only imagine how upsetting this is to those of you who came to us from the old Hutcheson system. I pledge to work hard to make this transition as seamless as possible when the time comes but I know that doesn't mean it will be easy."

Through his assistant, Camp declined to comment further. But Heiskell said Camp knew for months that she was trying to sell the ambulance service.

"I'm pleased with everything going on," she said. "The only thing I'm upset with is Randy Camp emailed his employees like he didn't know anything about it. I talked about selling it. It shouldn't have been a great shock to him."

She added: "Of course I care what happens to the employees. But I can't run a government to accommodate employees, though I try my best."

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©2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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