Pa. city officials scramble for EMS after ambulance service suddenly stops operations
Jeannette EMS states that poor insurance reimbursement rates are the reason for ending the service
By Renatta Signorini
JEANNETTE, Pa.—Members of Jeannette council likely will discuss during a work session Tuesday how to move forward after Jeannette EMS abruptly closed this week, leaving city officials scrambling to ensure residents have ambulance coverage.
Councilwoman Robin Mozley, who is the service’s liaison with the city, said questions remain after what she described as a “mad dash” to find a temporary alternative nine hours before the service stopped responding to calls.
But there is one thing residents shouldn’t be concerned about.
“If you call 911, you will have an ambulance at the door,” she said.
It’ll likely be Greensburg-based Mutual Aid EMS or Penn Township Ambulance for now, as both are splitting coverage in Jeannette. City firefighters also are typically called for more serious medical situations.
Jeannette EMS closed its doors at 7 p.m. Monday, a decision that surprised city leaders. The agency formed in 1960 when the Jeannette Auxiliary Police decided to take on the responsibility after being notified by city officials that a private ambulance service was going out of business, according to Jeannette EMS’ website.
The ambulance service eventually was separated from the auxiliary organization and, in 1994, Jeannette EMS moved to its current location on South Sixth Street.
Director of Operations Randy Highlands said Wednesday he would speak with a reporter later in the week.
Highlands assumed that role in 2015, telling the Tribune-Review at the time that he made cuts to staffing and the number of trucks in service to reduce expenses. In 2022, the agency used grants to purchase new radios and two ambulances.
Those purchases came a year after Hempfield supervisors decided to remove Jeannette EMS from covering North Hempfield, High Park and Grapeville, replacing them with Mutual Aid.
Jeannette EMS attributed this week’s closure in a Facebook post to, in part, low reimbursement rates from insurance companies. The city provided the agency with $12,000 annually.
Financial statements from 2018 and 2019 showed that Jeannette EMS lost money both years — $66,417 and $35,761, respectively. In 2020, the most recent year available, the agency banked about $1,500.
Revenue declined from $901,261 in 2017 to $879,845 in 2019 and jumped to $992,602 in 2020. Meanwhile, expenses jumped from $862,868 in 2017 to $960,527 the following year, then dropped to $915,606 in 2019 before rising again to $991,109 in 2020, according to the financial reports.
In 2017, the ambulance service had about 30 staff members and ran four ambulances. Highlands said as of this week there was a mix of 35 full-time and part-time employees.
For some residents, the closure caused concern. Sharlene Moore said ambulance response times might be impacted if the crew is not familiar with the town.
“There are elderly people here,” she said. “What are they going to do? I’m still young enough, though, I can move.”
Within two hours of Jeannette EMS ceasing operations Monday, there were three ambulance calls in the city. They were all handled by Mutual Aid, fire Chief Bill Frye said.
“We greatly appreciate the readiness of Mutual Aid and Penn Township (Ambulance) to step up and help,” he said.
More than half of the firefighters in the city’s paid department are EMTs or paramedics, and there is medical equipment on all of the trucks, ranging from devices to take vital signs to CPR machines. The department regularly is called to help at serious medical situations and that won’t change, Frye said.
“People are used to seeing us showing up anyway on the critical calls,” he said.
Those paid firefighters are well-equipped, Mayor Curtis Antoniak said.
“They’re usually on-site before the ambulance,” he said. “We’re in better shape than anybody else when it comes to lifesaving measures.”
Knowing that Penn Township Ambulance and Mutual Aid EMS are close by, in addition to the firefighters, relieved some residents.
“I see an ambulance go by at least once or twice a day, so I know it’s being used,” Dena Self said. “I haven’t really thought about it and am not too concerned because Penn Township is right there. ... Firemen and police respond first anyway, so as long as they can do it, I’m fine.”
Municipal government officials select ambulance providers to cover their towns to provide an orderly structure for ambulance calls. Jeannette Solicitor Tim Witt said city council will have to pick a provider.
Agency officials had shared some concerns about its financial future with the city, Witt said, but there was no formal request for additional funding from Jeannette EMS.
“I know for quite some time they were struggling just to keep the doors open, but they were still up and running,” Mozley said. “We have the citizens’ backs, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure” the city has ambulance coverage.
Rumors that the ambulance service was closing have swirled for years, but Monday’s announcement was a shock to city leaders.
“I think they should’ve reached out and at least had a conversation with the city,” Councilwoman Michelle Langdon said. “We’re talking about the safety of the community. I’d love to see this resolved as soon as possible.”
Small community ambulance services around Westmoreland County have merged with Mutual Aid in recent years.
In 2021, Mutual Aid took over as Rescue 14 EMS in Adamsburg closed. That same year, Mt. Pleasant Township supervisors approved Mutual Aid to take over in the Norvelt area, and the ambulance service expanded operations in Derry Township.
Mutual Aid took over the operation of the Ligonier Valley Ambulance Service’s area in 2017.
Antoniak said Jeannette EMS closing its doors is sad, but a sign of the times. Frye agreed, adding that residents around the area shouldn’t be surprised when it continues to happen.
“It’s unfortunate that this happened, but the EMS and the fire departments in Pennsylvania are in a severe crisis,” Frye said. “We’ve been telling our elected officials about it.”
Resident Jennifer Bennett said the closure put a dent in the hope she has been feeling about Jeannette. With more businesses coming into town, that might mean more of a demand for ambulance service.
“It surprised me,” she said. “Why did they announce they were closing the very day they were closing? Why didn’t they wait? The first thing I saw was the day it closed.”
The agency said on its Facebook page that checks sent by residents for subscriptions will not be cashed. Items the agency had been raffling off on its Facebook page will either be awarded to winners or the raffle tickets will be refunded.