The York County Council voted 5-2 to approve contracts overseeing ambulance services, capping off nearly a year of negotiations marked by heated debate and legal concerns.
The contracts set ambulance standards for Piedmont Medical Center, the county’s primary emergency medical provider, and two volunteer groups – River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS and Fort Mill Rescue Squad. All three providers operate at no cost to the county.
The contracts, which were given a third and final reading Monday night, were initially slated for a final vote last month, but council members voted to delay the decision after volunteer groups hinted at legal action against the county.
Currently, mandated response times are faster for those located in urban areas than for those in the rural west. Drafts presented during the last reading in November called for a complete overhaul of the ambulance system to be based no longer on geography, but on medical urgency.
With the system currently in place, response times are 12 minutes for urban areas, such as Rock Hill, but 20 minutes for the rural western towns, such Sharon and Hickory Grove. The tiered system would have mandated providers to meet response times of 10 to 15 minutes based on medical seriousness and regardless of location.
But after legal concerns were conveyed to the county during a public hearing, plans to move to the tiered system were stricken from the contracts entirely, disappointing council members who helped draft the original agreements.
“We held no feet to the fire by signing onto this,” said Bruce Henderson, who helped lead negotiations with hospital and squad representatives. Henderson was a supporter of ramping up response in the west where average times can exceed 17 minutes in some fire districts.
Councilman Joe Cox, who voted against the contracts with Henderson, agreed, saying he was “thoroughly upset,” and that “we didn’t do anything.”
But chairman Britt Blackwell said that the latest contracts accomplished an important task – ending a practice called dual dispatch, which sent ambulances from competing services to the same emergency.
The county began to seriously tackle contractual revisions with providers after the state health department issued a notice in January 2012 calling for an end to potentially dangerous racing ambulances.
Talks repeatedly stalled when hospital representatives and squad members couldn’t see eye to eye, according to council members.
The issue of racing ambulances as a result of dual dispatch has largely disappeared since early 2012 as the number of squads has dwindled, leaving PMC the sole responder in most areas. Nevertheless, Blackwell called the pared-down contracts a “foundation” for further discussion on how to improve rural response.
Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents the Fort Mill area where one squad is stationed, seconded the idea. “As a council we ought to pledge that we’re not going to drop this,” he said.
In November, Blackwell said county attorneys would quickly review the contracts for anything that could become legally problematic after squad leaders claimed the county was holding volunteers and PMC to different standards.
Squad leaders claimed the contracts contained “anti-competitive” provisions that made it difficult for existing volunteer agencies to add ambulances into service or for new agencies to come online entirely.
After the review, sections were removed entirely with only paragraphs ending dual dispatch and ensuring that patients can choose which hospital they’re taken to, remaining. Councilman Chad Williams said the contracts weren’t perfect, but “will work” when it comes to the original objective to end dual dispatch.
Leo Yakutis, vice president of River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS, said that while the latest contracts do formally end the practice and no longer contain “anti-competitive” themes, they won’t do much for those in the west where better response has been needed.
“We’re disappointed that this is so heavily gutted,” Yakutis said. “It doesn’t go as far as we wanted.”
Jie Jenny Zou • 803-329-4062