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Ala. hospital eyes merger with ambulance service

Informal talks have begun between Huntsville Hospital and Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Inc.


A HEMSI ambulance.

By Lee Roop

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Could Huntsville Hospital’s ever-growing expansion across north Alabama include a merger with the largest ambulance service between Nashville and Birmingham?

Discussion about a possible merger between the Huntsville Hospital system and Huntsville Emergency Medical Services Inc. (HEMSI), is informal and in the early stages, HEMSI CEO Jon Howell confirmed Friday.

Howell said it was the Huntsville Hospital Health System’s expansion across north Alabama that started the conversation. That system now includes 11 hospitals or health groups in north Alabama and one in Fayetteville, Tenn.

Ambulance services came with some of those acquired hospitals, Howell said, and that focused Huntsville Hospital system leaders on the expense of operating ambulances and the possible opportunities in combining services as they have with other operations.

“They (Huntsville Hospital Network) said, ‘We’ve got a north Alabama regional EMS system that is developing just organically’ and then they looked at it and they said, ‘Oh, well, you know, HEMSI is kind of the hole in this area,’” HEMSI Board President David Blair said in a recent interview with Huntsville television station WAFF.

“They came to us and wanted to know what we thought,” Howell said. “‘Would you like to be a part of our system?’”

For the ambulance service, the question was interesting. Also interesting, he said, was the unasked question, “What if we’re not?” The ambulance service could find itself competing for personnel with a regional health giant.

“This may be an opportunity to get in on the ground floor” of something good for HEMSI and the region, Howell said. “That got the talks going.”

Those talks have moved far enough that HEMSI and Huntsville Hospital signed an official letter of intent this month to pursue a possible merger or acquisition.

“There’s a lot of benefits to having all the ambulance services (together), efficiencies you could gain,” Blair said on television. “There’s no specific timeline, but we’d like to get it decided as soon as possible – either decide to move forward with going under Huntsville Hospital or not doing that and just continuing as HEMSI.”

HEMSI has decades of history in Madison County itself. It has operated since 1981 and Howell has been with the service since 1984. The ambulance service was originally formed by Huntsville Hospital, he said, after a private local service went bankrupt.

HEMSI is “quasi-governmental” now, Howell said. Records show it was formed as a non-profit with a board that includes hospital leaders as ex officio members. Today’s economy makes it a not-for-profit enterprise with ever-more-expensive liability insurance, something that coming into the hospital system would also help.

A merger isn’t decided, but both sides see benefits that way. But no matter what happens, HEMSI will retail its identity, Howell said.

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