By Stan Welch
How to address the financial challenges facing medical first responders in Anderson County was the subject of a special called meeting of the Anderson County Council Monday night. The Anderson County EMS Advisory Board was also on hand.
Following a meeting of that advisory board last Thursday, which saw members of the board disregard the chain of command and directly call County Administrator Rusty Burns to ask him various questions, the Council called for the meeting, which also drew assorted EMS officials from around the county.
The Council also released a document prepared by the county’s independent auditing firm, Greene, Finney & Horton.
The document, labeled as the Anderson County EMS agreed Upon Procedures report, briefly reviewed each EMS unit’s financial position, in terms of cash on hand.
Based on that limited perspective, most of the squads received rankings of fair to poor. Pendleton received the only rating of good, but several people in attendance pointed out that the Pendleton Squad favors keeping cash on hand, rather than reinvesting in additional equipment like several of the squads do.
Speaking during the public comments part of the agenda, Pelzer Rescue Squad board member Dan Durham informed the Council that the Pelzer group had long since accepted their status as asset rich and cash poor. “Three years ago, we had four hundred thousand dollars in the bank. But we bought more trucks and power lifts for stretchers and other equipment. It is our job to provide the best emergency care we can, not put money in the bank.”
The recent events concerning the Williamston EMS unit have spurred concerns about the general condition of the county’s various units. A number of allegations surfaced earlier this year in a letter sent by several Williamston EMS employees to county director of emergency services Scott Stoller. The letter alleged misuse of squad funds and general mismanagement. From there, the allegations were presented to the Sheriff’s office, which then contacted SLED.
The letter coincided with the resignation of Chief Joe Barr at the request of the squad, and the election of Leah Davis as interim chief. The Williamston EMS board of directors subsequently met with county officials, and according to a source familiar with the situation, asked that the county assume control of the unit.
State law prohibits such a rescue; but the Council, following a thirty minute executive session to discuss the situation, did authorize County Administrator Rusty Burns to execute any interim contracts necessary to provide uninterrupted emergency medical services to the people of Anderson County.
Essentially, the resolution, which passed unanimously, authorized Burns to act without additional approval of the Council, if the need arose.
Council Chairman Tommy Dunn reiterated that action by the Council Monday night, in response to complaints by the advisory board that they had not been informed of the eventual action taken by Burns. That action involved contracting with Medshore, the county’s only privately owned emergency care provider, to assume responsibilities previously held by the Williamston unit.
EMS advisory board member Teresa Morgan, Councilwoman Cindy Wilson’s appointee, cited the lack of communication, saying, “I don’t understand why the Council couldn’t sit down with the board and reach a decision together. We are not the enemy. We want to help you work through these things.”
“The Williamston situation happened very quickly, and had to be handled in the same way. Everything that was done in regards to that situation was totally open and legal,” said Dunn.
The document presented to the Council and the board contained several general recommendations. They included improvements in the area of communication between the county and the squads, financial training, additional training in the area of billing, and the possible sharing of resources with an eye towards creating a stronger county wide EMS system.
Dunn explained that while the county is fully aware of the issues facing the squads, their options to help are limited. “State law won’t let us raise taxes enough to solve these problems. The squads can’t run on what they are getting and we can’t give you anymore. We have got to do something.”
Dr. Don Peace, chairman of the advisory board, advised the Council that the future doesn’t look any better. Citing problems caused by changes in medicare, medicaid, and new requirements under the Affordable Care Act, Dr. Peace said plainly, “There is no way for us to stop the bleeding. The situation is going to get substantially worse in the near future.”
Dunn announced that the County is currently seeking a consultant to come in and study the squads’ operations with an eye towards increased efficiency, both in operations and in financial billing and management.
“I assure you that the input of the advisory board and others in the first responder community will be sought and incorporated into the study. When that study is complete, we will have some tough decisions to make. This is not just a problem in Anderson County. It is happening across the state and the country.”