PEMBROKE – A Bangor ambulance service says it is willing to ride to the rescue of the nearly 30 Washington County communities that will be without ambulance service by the end of the week.
Towns from Danforth to Wesley have less than 48 hours to decide whether they want Meridian Mobile Health to provide the service.
More than two dozen Washington County communities were left scrambling to provide ambulance service to their residents after McGovern Ambulance Service announced last week that it would suspend operations at 4 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7.
McGovern serves 30 eastern Washington County communities including Calais, Eastport and Lubec, and it manages Pleasant River Ambulance Service in western Washington County and the Northern Washington-Southern Aroostook Regional Ambulance Service.
The decision to close the 9-year-old ambulance service came less than two weeks after a federal grand jury handed up a 214-count indictment that charged owner Dana McGovern with defrauding the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs of close to $1 million. The federal government froze McGovern’s assets, including ambulances and bays.
Also last week, Dana McGovern filed an emergency petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking protection from creditors while he reorganizes his company.
Fewer than 20 communities were represented Tuesday morning at a hastily called meeting to find a regional solution to the crisis. The Washington County commissioners’ representative for the unorganized territories also attended.
Communities served by the Pleasant River Ambulance Service in western Washington County did not attend. That group apparently intends to seek its own solution.
Representatives of Meridian Mobile Health and Bangor’s Eastern Maine Medical Center also attended the meeting.
During the discussion, the town officials agreed that they had to look for short-term and long-term solutions to the problem.
Meridian Mobile Health spokesman Charles McCarthy said McGovern operated at a $250,000 annual deficit, a figure that did not include management costs or depreciation. He said the affected communities would have to either subsidize ambulance service or reduce services.
McGovern Ambulance has been making about 3,000 runs a year. Compounding the problem faced by any ambulance service is that it has to cover a large geographical base in Washington County – 2,500 square miles -yet serve a population of only about 30,000.
McCarthy said that if the communities want to have Meridian serve their needs, they must make an oral commitment so that Meridian can approach the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to see whether they would temporarily release McGovern’s assets so that the ambulances, equipment and bays could be used on a short-term basis.
“Thursday morning, if we were to continue the service, it would cost about $30,000 a week,” McCarthy said. That would be reduced once the state and federal billing revenue stream was developed.
Because it appears that Pleasant River Ambulance Service in western Washington County may be developing its own solution, Meridian’s cost to operate weekly may be closer to $20,000.
Dennis Brockway of Eastern Maine Medical Center said the hospital would be willing to step in and assist residents in the short term – “to act as the … glue, if you will, to try and maintain what currently is in place,” he said.
“That would buy the respective towns the needed time to develop a long-range plan,” he said. Brockway warned that there would be no “easy fix” to the problem.
Eastport City Manager George “Bud” Finch said he would like to see a regional approach to the ambulance problem, and he suggested that some sort of quasi-municipal entity operate such a service.
Calais Mayor Eric Hinson said he believes a short-term solution had to be agreed upon soon because Washington County communities cannot be left without ambulance coverage.
All participants agreed that a formal, short-term solution is needed, and the consensus appeared to be that most of the communities want to move ahead with Meridian’s proposal.
Community officials identified the steps they would have to take to have ambulance service in place immediately. Those steps include:
. Giving Meridian an oral commitment that it would be the county’s ambulance service.
. An agreement to make up the weekly $30,000 shortfall until the billing revenue stream is established.
Meridian officials said that once the service is running, that weekly fee will drop to around $5,000.
The group agreed that once the immediate problem of ambulance service is resolved, the communities must take a look at long-term solutions.
Those at the meeting discussed the possibility of tapping the county’s surplus fund. Over the weekend, residents learned that Washington County commissioners have a slush fund that could be used to help area cities and towns.
Several people after the meeting identified the ambulance problem as a countywide crisis. Some town officials wondered why the Washington County commissioners were not involved in resolving it.
Lubec Selectman Diana Wilson said she believes the county should take a leadership role.
“After all, a good part of their county is going to be without ambulance service as of Thursday. The communities are doing the best they can,” she said.
Pembroke Selectman Milan Jamieson said that 10 years ago, county commissioners took a leadership role in setting up a countywide landfill once the state ordered individual towns to close their dumps.
“I think they should be more involved. We represent the towns, but they represent us all. We turn to them when the towns can’t do the job. I think there should be more leadership and more questions … asked. They seem to have sat back and let the towns take the lead,” he said.
Jamieson said Pembroke pays $62,000 a year in county taxes.
None of the commissioners attended the meeting Tuesday, nor did any members of the county’s legislative delegation.
While the communities were focused on solutions to the problem, McGovern manager Ham Robbins praised the ambulance workers who have continued to serve. “The crews have stood with the ambulances. There’s been no whining,” Robbins said.
“Everybody has shown up for their shifts, and we’re going to operate right until 4 p.m. on Thursday, when our insurance runs out. The crews want jobs, and they want to stay in this business. They hope that whoever comes in will be able to utilize them as part of the team,” he said.
McGovern employs about 80 people.
The meeting reconvened at 3 p.m. Tuesday, and Hinson said 10 of the 14 towns attended. The mayor said the other town representatives plan to contact their boards within the next 24 hours.