LUMBERTON — Three Robeson County commissioners who last week voted to switch the provider of convalescent ambulance services now say they think it would be a good idea to take a good look at that company’s finances before a final contract is signed.
MED1 recently asked the Hoke County Board of Commissioners for additional funding to help pay some of the company’s unpaid bills. MED1 provides both primary 911 service and convalescent transport services in Hoke County. The county commissioners having second thoughts are David Edge, Lance Herndon and Hubert Sealey.
Hoke County Manager Tim Johnson told The Robesonian Tuesday that MED1, which is in the first year of a three-year contract with Hoke County, has asked Hoke commissioners for a $123,000 increase in the current allocation of $595,000 per year. Johnson said that the ambulance company is requesting the money to offset losses the company has experienced transporting individuals who are uninsured and could not pay for the service.
“This is just a request and has not yet been made formally to our commissioners,” Johnson said. “The request will be discussed at a budget work session later this month.”
Johnson declined to say what his recommendation to his board will be. He did say, however, that “overall” MED1 has provided good service in Hoke County.
Tom Bryant, head of operations for MED1, did not return repeated phone calls from The Robesonian made last week and this week.
Charles Britt, Robeson County’s fire marshal and interim county manager, said that the contract between Hoke County and MED1 is different from the contract that is being negotiated between Robeson County and MED1. In Robeson County the ambulance company will have more discretion in choosing the patients it transports because it is only providing non-emergency convalescent transports, Britt said. In Hoke County, the ambulance company must provide service for all emergency calls no matter what the individual’s ability to pay for the service.
The county Board of Commissioners last week approved in a 7 yto 1 vote a two-year contract with MED 1. The only other company offering a proposal to provide the service was American Medical Response, a national company that has held an exclusive contract with the county for 13 years.
During a final vote on which company to hire, only Chairman Noah Woods voted against hiring MED1. Before the end of the week, however, Sealey and Edge said they would have rather stayed with AMR, a company they said has a proven track record.
On Tuesday, The Robesonian contacted all eight of the commissioners following news of MED1’s apparent financial problems. Only Commissioner Jerry Stephens did not respond; Stephens did answer a call from a reporter, told the reporter he was too busy to talk, and then did not answer subsequent phone calls.
According to interim County Manager Ricky Harris, he has not been asked by the commissioners to further look into the financial state of MED1.
“This is strictly a matter for the commissioners,” he said. “As it now stands, the commissioners have decided on which company they want to hire.”
Harris also said that if any changes are to be made to the approved franchise agreement it would require the county attorney to become involved. The contract with MED1 is slated to become effective about July 10, he said.
Woods told The Robesonian that he has no intention of asking for a review of the board’s decision to hire MED1 unless other commissioners ask for such action.
“I made my position clear when I voted against hiring the company,” Woods said. “I’m not going to make any further comments.”
Herndon said Tuesday he wants more information about MED1’s financial status.
“I can see a definite need to be concerned,” he said. “I definitely want more detailed financial information.”
Sealey said that he “highly recommends” that the county take a second look at MED1.
“It makes no sense to me that we change from a company that has given us superb service and go to a company with questionable financial stability,” he said. “I don’t know of any private business that would make such a change.”
Edge said that he is considering making a formal request that the decision to hire MED1 be reviewed.
“I think this needs to be discussed more,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Taylor told The Robesonian that he’s not ready to comment publicly.
“I will say that the financial papers I have seen show the company to be financially stable,” Taylor said. “If they came to
us asking for more money, I wouldn’t give it to them.”
MED1’s strongest support Tuesday came from Commissioners Raymond Cummings and Roger Oxendine, both of whom said they are not concerned that problems the company is having in Hoke County will interfere with services they provide in Robeson County.
“When we made our decision we based it on proposals and presentations made by the two companies in February,” Cummings said. “We did not base our decision on innuendos and hearsay.”
Among the promises MED1 made during its proposal presentation was to give the county $50,000 for the transport franchise. AMR had been paying the county a franchise fee of less than $10,000 a year, Harris said. But an official with AMR told The Robesonian the company would match of surpass any financial offer by MED1.
Oxendine said that it is not unusual for companies to approach a funding source and request more money.
“With the shape of the economy all companies are facing hard times,” Oxendine said. “I don’t have a concern now because companies are always asking for more money. But if they sign a contract with us and then can’t meet their financial obligations, that’s when I will have a problem.”
— Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or email@example.com.