CALAIS – Even with a gun to their heads, it took the city councilors two meetings Wednesday to decide how the city would cope with the loss of ambulance service. When they were done, the majority voted to enter into a contract with a private company.
The councilors moved carefully as they considered two proposals. Their first choice was offered by the Calais Fire Department. The start-up cost to operate a city-operated ambulance service with paramedic coverage would be around $34,000. That figure includes one-time costs for uniforms and a defibrillator. The cost of operating for 90 days would be around $75,000.
Meridian Mobile Health said it could provide service to the city for around $13,000 for the same 90-day period. That figure does not take into account the city’s portion of the management cost or the rental cost if Meridian uses equipment owned by McGovern Ambulance Service. Thursday evening the councilors learned that they would be required to pay a portion of the $50,000 management fee as well as the $6,500 monthly equipment rental fee.
Towns from Danforth to Wesley have only hours to decide how they are going to provide ambulance service for their residents when McGovern closes its doors. More than two dozen Washington County communities will be left high and dry when McGovern Ambulance Service suspends operations at 4 p.m. today.
McGovern serves 30 eastern Washington County communities including Calais, Eastport and Lubec, and it manages Pleasant Point Ambulance Service in western Washington County and the Northern Washington-Southern Aroostook Regional Ambulance Service. Pleasant River voted this week to operate its own ambulance service and not sign on with Meridian.
The decision to close McGovern’s 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 nearly $1 million. The federal government froze McGovern’s assets, including ambulances and bays.
Last week, Dana McGovern filed an emergency petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking protection from creditors while he reorganized his company. Meridian is hoping that the U.S. Attorney and federal bankruptcy court will release the McGovern equipment so it can operate an ambulance service Down East.
During the discussion Thursday morning, several councilors expressed concern about the higher cost for a service operated by the Calais Fire Department. They also learned that until the city gets its federal and state billing numbers, it cannot bill the government for services. The inability to bill Medicare or Medicaid could last from 30 to 120 days.
But even with all the unresolved issues, several of the councilors seemed to favor the city service because they would have greater control over it, and also because they would be able to control the costs. During the discussion, it was suggested that the city enter into a contract to have Calais Regional Hospital handle the Medicare and Medicaid billings. But a meeting with hospital officials Wednesday afternoon revealed that the hospital is not licensed to handle ambulance billings.
The councilors also seemed to think that if the city contracted with the hospital to transport patients to Bangor and surrounding towns to handle their emergency and transporting needs, the city might be able to make some money.
Before deciding on the city plan, the councilors explored the Meridian plan. They agreed that because Meridian is already operating, it would be able to immediately begin billing state and federal agencies. They also agreed that the company would be able to walk in and take over where McGovern had left off. Meridian also maintained that it would have an open-book policy and allow the city to review its operating costs. On the downside, several councilors expressed concern that the cost to operate the service could skyrocket once the 90-day period had ended. They also were concerned because they would not have any control over Meridian because it’s a private company.
After more than an hour of discussion, the councilors voted to adjourn and reconvene at 6 p.m. When the meeting resumed, the fire department again pressed its case for operating the service. They said they would be able to provide emergency ambulance service to Calais residents and to those surrounding areas that wished to contract with it.
Eastport City Manager George “Bud” Finch attended the evening meeting and asked the councilors to remain focused on creating a regional ambulance service that would encompass all communities from Calais to Wesley. He said that if the smaller communities were forced to go it alone, they would set up their own service and would compete with Calais for hospital transfer patients.
Mayor Eric Hinson said he did not believe the city should get into the ambulance business.
Councilor Earl Jensen said he favored the Meridian plan because he believes the council needs more facts and figures before it creates a whole new department.
After an hour of discussion, the councilors voted 5-2 to enter into an agreement with Meridian. They also instructed their attorney to negotiate a contract with the ambulance company that would put a cap on the city’s costs. “I don’t want to issue them [Meridian] a blank check,” Jensen said.