One only has to drive down Clinch Avenue in Knoxville, past the front entrance to Fort Sanders Medical Center, to see the impact that the closing of Tennova St. Mary’s Hospital has had on area emergency care.
Ambulances are stacked up like cordwood in a parking area along the street, waiting for the patients they have transported to either be discharged after treatment or admitted to the hospital.
The Campbell County Commission discovered Monday night that this county is seeing the impact as well, where it hurts, in the pocketbook.
At the commission’s budget & finance session on Monday prior to the monthly workshop, Finance Director Jeff Marlow explained the reason behind a budget amendment being prepared at the request of the commission’s ambulance committee.
Marlow explained that response times to emergency calls have increased dramatically, because the ambulances and crews of the Campbell County Ambulance Service are often outside the county transporting patients. In addition, those ambulances cannot simply drop the patient off and return, but must await some resolution to the patient’s condition.
The only solution, Marlow explained, is to increase personnel by adding four additional crew members, as well as two additional staff to bring Campbell County EMS up to full. The cost of the additional ambulance crew for the remaining months of the current fiscal year will be $55,000, to be taken from the ambulance service fund balance.
For the next fiscal year beginning in July, the additional staffing will cost another $210,000 and commissioners will need to find a source for funding the increase, which might mean higher property taxes.
At an EMS Committee meeting last month, Marlow spelled out the challenges facing the county’s ambulance service. Marlow explained that an analysis shows that 40 percent of transports to hospitals are to hospitals outside Campbell County. In addition, of the patients transported to local hospitals in LaFollette and Jellico, over three-fourths of those patients were then taken to another hospital outside the county.
The ambulance service has been an increasing financial burden on the county’s coffers for some time, beginning when Medicare decreased the reimbursement rate that it pays Campbell County for ambulance transport.
“With current trends, the goal of the federal government is to get out of the ambulatory care industry and place that solely in the responsibility of the county,” Marlow predicted. One bright spot is that the private VitalCare ambulance service is doing less business.
At one point, VitalCare posed a problem for the county EMS. As the private company took many non-emergency patient transport calls, cutting down on the county’s call volume and thereby cutting into revenues.
Another challenge facing the county service is the Jellico ambulance station. With a crew on duty 24 hours at Jellico, the Jellico ambulance transports fewer patients than the White Bridge crew, which operates only 14 hours a day.
“With the Jellico run volume being so low, they are bleeding the budget,” Marlow told the committee. There is no feasible way to support a truck (financially) in the Jellico community, however there is no way not to have one either.”
Despite all of the other factors affecting the EMS budget, the current situation must be addressed with more money and more personnel, as response times to emergency calls continues to grow longer, leaving Campbell County lives at risk.
Often, Campbell County ambulances are forced to transport patients beyond Knoxville because emergency rooms at Knoxville hospitals were full. The number of runs Campbell County EMS logged to destinations beyond Knoxville more than tripled, from 5 to 18, between December and January.
Faced with the inevitable, the budget & finance committee voted unanimously to approve all budget amendments, including the additional funding to add another 14-hour ambulance crew. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 03/14/2019-6AM-PHOTOS COURTESY OF WLAF’S CHARLIE HUTSON)