BERLIN — The high-stakes battle for Berlin’s ambulance business remains unresolved after the Select Board refused to declare a winner this week and took the matter under advisement for the second time in less than a month.
After listening to brief presentations from two of the bidders and quizzing the third at length, board members agreed they weren’t ready to decide between essentially maintaining business as usual and fueling the birth of a new ambulance service.
“I’d certainly like to digest the information for a while,” Selectman Pete Kelley said after listening to presentations from the town’s current ambulance provider as well as the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department and the man behind an intriguing no-cost offer that dominated discussion Monday night.
Board members unanimously tabled action on the matter until their April 1 meeting. A decision is expected at that time.
Though the board was presented with three detailed ambulance proposals last month, one is arguably on life support after voters recently rejected the Fire Department’s request for $180,000 in supplemental funding to cover the cost of continuously staffing its Four Corners station. Without that extra money, department officials told the board, the per-capita price of starting a local ambulance service would more than triple — from the $28 they had hoped to the $89 they had feared.
In a town with roughly 2,800 residents, that would turn what would have been a manageable first-year investment of $80,000 into a $250,000 start-up expense.
Deputy Fire Chief Scott Bagg acknowledged “Plan B” wasn’t as financially palatable as he and others had hoped, though he defended the idea of creating a dual fire and ambulance department that could provide round-the-clock coverage to the community.
In something of a surprise, Bagg offered the department’s qualified endorsement of one of the other two bidders, Barre Town Emergency Medical Services.
“If we aren’t selected we strongly support Barre Town,” Bagg said of the standalone ambulance service that has served Berlin without interruption since 1996.
Bagg stressed the Fire Department’s renewed interest in breaking into the ambulance business was not a reflection of the quality of the paramedic-level service that Barre Town has provided over the years.
BTEMS Director Dave Jennings told board members that his service is interested in keeping Berlin as a customer after its current contract expires June 30.
Jennings said the service, which is run by Barre Town, has a proven track record in Barre Town, Berlin and beyond.
According to the three-year contract proposed by BTEMS, the annual per-capita fee would start at $26 and increase 5 percent a year over the life of the agreement.
The proposed contract includes an option for two additional years with annual increases of 3 percent. If Berlin were to exercise that option, the annual per-capita fee would be $30.41 starting July 1, 2017.
The board spent little time discussing the ambulance service that is a known commodity in the community and most of its time questioning the man who has offered to provide ambulance service to Berlin free of charge, while cutting the town in on 5 percent of the profit.
Matt George has pitched Central Vermont Emergency Medical Services as a public-private partnership that would allow Berlin to cash in on the fact that it is home to a regional hospital and two major nursing homes.
“Berlin is in a tremendously unique position where you guys have the highest concentration of health care facilities in the state,” said George, who is the clinical services coordinator for White River Valley Ambulance.
According to him, the combination of a comparatively low number of 911 emergency calls from residents and the unusually high volume of inter-facility transfers made Berlin an attractive target for a private ambulance service.
George’s observation was supported by Charlie Maymon, an executive for a privately owned Scandinavian-based company that is the largest provider of emergency medical services in the world.
Maymon said George recently approached Falck Ambulance, which does business in 37 countries on five continents, about the possibility of investing in CVEMS.
Though Maymon said Falck hasn’t made any commitments, he said the type of service George had described was doable in Berlin.
“Where you sit geographically is a great location for an ambulance service that is willing to reach outside of the town of Berlin and do other inter-facility work,” he said, suggesting the service could turn a profit without charging the town.
Although George said his preference would be to work with Falck due to that company’s depth of resources, he said he has lined up bank financing to buy two ambulances and establish an ambulance service by July 1.
However, George acknowledged those plans are in a holding pattern pending the town’s decision. The board questioned him about plans to equip, staff and license the ambulance service he has proposed.
George said all could be accomplished within an ever-shrinking window and, while he has made progress on some fronts, he needs a definitive answer from the board before locking anything down.
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