The Saltville Rescue Squad is fighting to survive. On the brink of collapse just a short time ago, the 61-year-old lifesaving crew may get the opportunity to continue operating.
Tuesday evening, members of the county’s EMS committee and emergency responders from around the county learned of the non-profit agency’s work to continue serving its 144-square-mile community. The squad has reorganized its board, including adding a certified public accountant (CPA), updated its business plan and elected new officers.
Jason Mash, a squad EMT from Glade Spring, is the agency board’s incoming president. He represented Saltville Rescue at the meeting.
He noted the financially-strapped agency is taking a multi-pronged approach to rebuilding its coffers. At the top of that list is restoring its lapsed Medicare billing number, which was inadvertently allowed to expire at September’s end. The agency was banking on receiving $42,000 from Medicare for the last quarter of 2018 that did not come through due to the expired number.
The paperwork to re-activate its number has been submitted and, Mash said, the squad hopes to learn of Medicare’s decision in the coming weeks. Squad members are hoping that decision allows the agency to back bill to Jan. 31.
If that comes through, Mash said, the squad will be in good shape. If not, more of a struggle is ahead. However, he said the crew is moving forward with plans to sell a tractor, a Kubota and trailer, and a closed four-wheel utility trailer and net about $25,000.
The squad is also receiving billing revenue coming in from private insurers and is continuing to take on a variety of fundraisers.
In February, squad representatives appeared before the board of supervisors, predicting the agency’s demise, saying it only had the revenue to operate a few months. The squad was said to be hemorrhaging money, going about $25,000 into the red every month.
The next month, the squad was again before the supervisors. This time reporting that it only had the finances to operate through the weekend.
The county declined to give the agency funds, but the Saltville Town Council gave it $20,000, which, at the time, was expected to sustain the squad for a month or two.
By the supervisors April 9 meeting, the crew’s position had changed. With work, a future appeared possible.
In the meantime, the county had been preparing in the event that the squad did shut down. Supervisors had asked Chilhowie Fire-EMS to help cover Saltville if need be. The county also advertised for bids from private agencies. Acknowledging that a decline in volunteerism and revenue is making survival a struggle in Sugar Grove as well and would likely soon impact other entities, the county asked for three bids: one for covering the Saltville-Rich Valley area, a second for providing service to Saltville and Sugar Grove, and a third for serving the entire county.
The county received five bids, including one from the Saltville Rescue Squad. The squad bid $12,500 monthly, or $150,000 annually, to continue serving its community.
Other bidders included Richardson Ambulance Service, Trinity Ambulance Service, AMR and Lifecare Medical Transport. In terms of yearly totals, the four organizations that bid on covering the entire county submitted proposals that ranged from $1.2 million to $5.3 million.
Harrington, who had been asked to review the bids, told the EMS Committee Tuesday that none of the proposals met the county’s needs.
If the Saltville squad believes it can continue to operate, Harrington recommended that it be allowed to do so and that the supervisors reject all the bids.
As an example, he noted that one agency was requesting $100,000 a month to cover the entire county, but proposed to cover its hundreds of square miles with only two ambulances. Additional ambulances would up the bid price.
Harrington also emphasized multiple times that the Saltville squad continuing to operate would be in the best interests of the community.
Supervisors’ chairman and EMS Committee member Todd Dishner said the county board didn’t want to shut down the squad. However, he said, the crisis has spurred new questions for the supervisors to consider, especially regarding the future viability of emergency response agencies. “We don’t want to get caught unprepared,” he said, adding, “Keeping people covered… is imperative.”
Chilhowie Town Manager John Clark noted that his town’s fire-EMS agency had worked up a plan to assist with coverage if Saltville shut down. However, he said, it would take 90 days before those plans could be put into effect. “We would need lead time,” he said, noting that the town would have to hire three new staffers in that event.
Officials urged Mash to continue communicating with them about the squad’s status, including providing Harrington with a monthly report on membership, calls and similar information.
Mash agreed, saying transparency will be the key. “Our board failed to give you time to act,” he said.
County Administrator Michael Carter emphasized that a few days notice of imminent failure wasn’t acceptable going forward. “That’s not fair to anyone…,” he said.
Other emergency responders urged the county to continue developing plans for the future.
With Saltville’s reprieve, Harrington said the county is in the eye of the hurricane. He cautioned that some time has been bought, but, with volunteerism continuing to drop, “at some point, we’re going to have to face facts…. We have to look at the county as a whole.”
David Haynes, chief of Chilhowie’s Fire-EMS Department, agreed. He also noted that fire departments are on the verge of crisis too. “Not tomorrow,” he said, but the threat exists.
Harrington asked that the county appoint an ad hoc committee with representatives of every county EMS agency to develop and prepare proposals for the short- and long-term.
Dishner expressed his gratitude to everyone, giving a particular nod to Chilhowie for “chipping in when the chips were down.” He too believed planning now is important. “This is a severe situation. I don’t want to kick the can down the road.”
“We’re putting a Band-Aid on now,” said Harrington. “We need to find a way to surgically repair” the situation.
The committee agreed to recommend to the full board of supervisors that:
All the proposals be rejected;
The ad hoc committee be established; and
The Saltville Rescue Squad be allowed to continue with the support and encouragement of the supervisors.
The EMS Committee’s recommendation will go before the full board at its May 14 meeting for additional discussion and consideration.