If county’s EMS goes private, what are the risks and benefits?

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Decatur County officials are currently reviewing bids from two companies who would privately operate the county’s Emergency Medical Service if county commissioners vote to do so.

Seminole County has also been considering privatizing its ambulance service, and has already taken a vote on which bid they prefer. If Decatur County commissioners choose the same company as Seminole County already chose, the two counties’ EMS services may be combined for cost-savings and efficiency purposes, Decatur County Administrator Gary Breedlove said.

(Click to view the request for proposals that Decatur County sent out to prospective bidders) 

That does not necessarily mean citizens would see a decrease in the quality of their ambulance service, Breedlove said; and there is a likelihood that it would be improved because a private company would improve working conditions for EMS employees and keep their vehicles and equipment up-to-date. Breedlove said some current EMS employees favor management by a private company, because they would probably be eligible for better health care and other benefits. Here’s the basic operation of Decatur County EMS, from the request for proposals the county sent out:

The present Decatur County Emergency Medical Service is staffed by 17 full time county employees with 10 part-time employees that fill in as needed. Our county is covered by a six person shift that rotates every 24 hours. We have 3 ambulances available to cover the county.

At Decatur County commissioners’ April 22 meeting, Breedlove told commissioners that a committee set up to review bids on EMS privatization had narrowed down to two companies, including the one Seminole County commissioners picked. The county administrator said he would likely present the committee’s recommendation at their May 13 meeting.

In an April interview with sowegalive.com, Breedlove addressed a previously-voiced concern that current EMS employees might lose their jobs if a private company began managing them. He said that wasn’t necessarily the case; if EMS was turned over to private management, county officials would have no input on who the private company chooses to employ. But Breedlove said he had been given assurances from the companies’ representatives that the companies would conduct a fair re-hiring process in which EMS employees would have to interview for positions. He said he didn’t think it would make common sense for the companies to ignore the current employees’ experience and not re-hire at least some of them.

However, Breedlove said there were scenarios in which some EMS employees might not be re-hired. For example, if Decatur and Seminole counties both chose the same company to manage their EMS services, that company could make decisions on how to operate ambulances in both counties that are different from the current setup.

“It’s my understanding that if the two counties’ ambulance services were combined, a private company might choose to station two ambulances in Decatur County and one in Seminole County,” Breedlove said. “Of course, the ambulances could go between counties depending on the call volume, but if the company ran less total ambulances than the two counties currently run, it stands to reason that they would need less people to operate them.”

On its face, that might make some citizens nervous, but Breedlove said Mitchell County’s EMS has been run privately and county officials there have been very pleased with the service.

A private EMS might also benefit taxpayers: although Decatur County might still have to pay a sum each year to the private company and forego any revenue from patient transport, the county government would no longer lose money every year on EMS. Around 2004, the county’s EMS was losing about $500,000 per year and county commissioners had to make up the shortfall from the county’s general fund. In 2013, the county EMS operated at a loss of about $350,000, which Breedlove attributed to cost savings on items such as equipment, as well as better bill collection from patients.


Here’s some of what County Administrator Gary Breedlove had to say in April about the possibility of EMS privatization:

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