PETERSTOWN — With no county money now supplementing services, Peterstown Rescue Squad is in danger of cutting back on ambulance availability to Monroe County residents.
Squad President Jerry Brown said the squad, which now provides coverage 24/7, is losing between $10,000 and $12,000 a month as well has having to use capital account money for operations.
“This cannot be sustained,” he said. “We have been on our own since July 1, 2020.”
That is when the previous controversial $100 ambulance fee paid by property owners in the county ended. The county commission was collecting barely half of what it should have been collecting.
The county faced a lawsuit over the fee, but that was eventually dropped.
After the fee ended last year, a levy was tried to raise money to supplement ambulance service, but voters rejected that in November 2020.
The levy would have provided Emergency Management Service coverage to both ends of the county, and to Alderson.
Currently, STAT EMS, based in Pineville, is providing ambulance service to the eastern part of the county and has a unit in Union.
But Brown said he does not know how long that will last because the call volume is too low to break even on that end of the county as well. Greenbrier Ambulance had been covering that area a few years ago after the Union Rescue Squad disbanded, but they eventually told the county they could no longer do it without a supplement.
“When you run 70 calls a month there is not enough billable calls to sustain the services,” Brown said of Peterstown, adding they need to be running about 120 .
“There are even times we have to cover their territory,” said paramedic Vicki Conner, referring to the lone unit STAT has that may be on a call. “We even help Giles County out.”
Not only that, Brown said about 20 of the calls they run may be refusals, especially this last year during the pandemic when people are reluctant to go to the hospital, and the squad collects no money at all on those.
Brown said the squad provides that 24-hour coverage as a 911 response as well as calling in a backup if needed.
But that may need to be cut back to 16 hours, or even less, in the coming months.
“People don’t realize we have our general insurance we have to pay, we have to pay upkeep on ambulances and other expenses,” he said. “We pay workers comp on everybody. All of that accumulates into large expenses that have to be paid.”
Brown gets no compensation for his work, and even goes out on calls if necessary. “I don’t get a dime,” he said. But that is rare.
“The day of the volunteer is over,” he said, referring to a professional staff that is now routine everywhere.
Brown said under the county ambulance fee the squad was supposed to be receiving about $225,000 a year to offer all of those services, and needs about that amount to continue.
A base ambulance costs about $178,000 and equipment is expensive because it is basically an emergency room on wheels, he said.
It also must be equipped with drugs often needed in emergencies, which are also expensive and must be periodically replaced even if not used.
All of this falls under state regulations that must be followed.
Brown said the squad did apply for federal money through the state during the pandemic but was turned down because it is not directly affiliated with a municipality.
Although it shares facilities with the fire department, they are separate entities as far as funding and operations are concerned.
Voters did pass a levy a few years ago to supplement fire service.
Monroe County Commission President Kevin Galford said the commission is “looking everywhere we can to support it.”
But with only 50 percent of county property owners paying the fee and the levy failing “miserably,” the county is searching for answers.
“Those avenues have been exhausted,” he said. “But they are losing money. There are ways to do an ordinance down the road.”
But that ordinance would need public support as well.
Galford said it’s a problem in other rural counties too, but more populous counties like Mercer County can be self-sustaining.
Stacey Hicks, president of Princeton Rescue Squad, said it does boil down to the number of calls and transports.
“We are okay,” he said, adding that Bluefield Rescue Squad is solid as well and the two squads work together.
Hicks said he understands Monroe County’s dilemma and they have had difficulty during the pandemic as well because some patients are afraid of going to the hospital.
That can be risky, he said, because if someone who needs help refuses to call an ambulance or refuse to be transported they could die.
Hicks said the Princeton squad helps other counties, but that can involve a longer waiting time if there is no local service available.
Although the state requires counties to provide ambulance service to residents, Galford said the county is now meeting the requirement.
“We are covered for now,” he said, but that is a precarious situation without more funding. “This has been going on for seven or eight years.”
Brown said it boils down to what type of service residents want.
If they want fast, 24-hour coverage they have to provide some funding for it.
Conner said another aspect is that most people feel more comfortable dealing with someone who lives in the community and they may know, rather than an emergency being handled by strangers.
“Do you want the community to take calls or someone from outside?” she said, adding that the response time would also increase substantially.
Brown said the squad’s current response time average is well under the state requirement.
The ability to continue maintaining current services is not an issue that is going away.
“It’s still talk right now,” Galford said of the ongoing discussions to find a solution. “It may take awhile. People need to understand that they are not making money, they are losing money running ambulances. They don’t want to go broke so they can’t sustain their services.”
Brown said if a solution is not found, cutbacks in services could be coming in the near future, not a long ways down the road.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org