City DopeNews

Proposed Agreement Would Bring More Transparency to EMS

Fire Chief Jeff Scarbrough

A new agreement among Athens-Clarke County and local hospitals could bring more transparency to Athens’ oft-criticized privately owned ambulance service, National EMS..

For years, former emergency medical technicians, some county commissioners and others have been accusing National EMS of taking too long to respond to calls and misleading officials and the public about ambulance response times. Under a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) proposed by ACC Fire Chief Jeff Scarbrough, the ACC Fire and Emergency Services Department and 911 Center, along with National EMS, would share quarterly data with and provide semi-annual presentations to the mayor and commission. Data provided would include information on response times, number of advanced and basic ambulances in service, their locations and incidents where calls came in and no trucks were available, as well as times for dispatchers to answer calls, the time it takes to deploy fire trucks, and the number of ambulances that go on more lucrative non-emergency runs. The mayor and commission would also receive information on the types of emergencies and the outcomes.

“The system gets overwhelmed,” Scarbrough told commissioners at a Sept. 12 work session. “We have a two-car crash with 15 patients. We’re taxed; National EMS is taxed, and even the emergency rooms get taxed with those kind of numbers.”

Firefighters are cross-trained as EMTs and often provide treatment on the scene, if they are the first to arrive, but they do not transport patients to the hospital.

Athens Regional Medical Center—now Piedmont Athens Regional—and St. Mary’s Hospital contracted with National EMS to provide ambulance service in 2008. Under a 2013 MOU where ACC and Oconee County agreed to contribute $100,000 each to subsidize the service, the two counties and two hospitals appointed an oversight committee. However, the oversight committee stopped meeting in 2020 after journalists tried to attend, and county Attorney Judd Drake issued a memo saying that the meetings should be open to the public under Georgia law. “The meetings have become very sporadic, and we have not met in a long time,” Chief Scarbrough said.

“As someone who’s served on this nonexistent committee since I took office… this is awesome,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said about the proposal.

Several other commissioners also praised the idea of additional transparency. Carol Myers added that she wants to see ambulances staffed with paramedics, who have a higher level of training than EMTs, and that National EMS is out of network for many Athens residents’ health insurance.

“How many lives are lost because somebody decided to get in the back seat of the Buick because they didn’t want to call the ambulance?” Commissioner Melissa Link said.

In response to a question from Commissioner Patrick Davenport, Manager Blaine Williams said that Piedmont is on board, but it’s unclear whether a future MOU will have to include Oconee County and St. Mary’s or just Piedmont. That’s what is holding up county staff from bringing the MOU forward for a commission vote.

An alternative briefly discussed was for ACC to take over ambulance service itself, but that would be “a very expensive proposition,” Williams said. In addition, there’s no guarantee that the state would create a new ambulance zone, or that ACC would win the contract, Scarbrough said.

Although many Athens residents are worried about local ambulance response times, Mayor Kelly Girtz put the issue in a statewide context. “This is probably a sad fact, but we’re fairly well situated, particularly compared to South Metro Atlanta and South Georgia,” he said. “Those are the places where there are dramatic stories out there, with regular hours-long waits.”

The commission also heard an update from nonprofit Advantage Behavioral Health Systems about a new inpatient mental health recovery facility off Mitchell Bridge Road. The $6.6 million first phase will consist of 10 two-bedroom apartments, offices, a kitchen, meeting room, fitness room, computer room and storage space. If ABHS receives a $4.7 million state grant, the second phase consisting of 16 more apartments will be built at the same time. The first phase’s funding comes from local sales taxes and the federal American Rescue Plan Act. In addition, the county will spend $1.2 million in SPLOST funds designated for clean energy on a solar array.