Griswold Ambulance Company up for sale

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Mon., Dec. 16, 2013
Griswold Ambulance EMT Ryan Hargraves erected a sign in his yard to spark debate over the future of the ambulance company.
Griswold Ambulance EMT Ryan Hargraves erected a sign in his yard to spark debate over the future of the ambulance company.

The Griswold Ambulance Company is up for sale, after this fiscal year’s funding from the town fell short of what the company said it needs to function. The company is listed with Holdsworth Group EMS Consulting of Cromwell, Conn., with a starting bid price of $350,000.

“Actually, [town officials] forced us out of business,” said ambulance company Chairman William Czmyr. “For the past three years they only gave us $20,000. That’s just enough to cover the workmen’s comp.”

“The public has never gotten our true budget that we present,” said company vice-chairman and supervisor Brian Ayers. The current request for funding seeks $158,000 for this year and $165,900 for the following year, a 5 percent increase. He said company officials and the company’s billing agent have been meeting periodically with the board of selectmen since August. “We just hit a stone wall” with the board, he said. “The town wanted us to come in with our bottom line price. We presented it to them and they said no… They won’t even put it to referendum.”

First Selectman Philip Anthony said that for the past 3 years, the selectmen have requested $65,000 for the ambulance company. Each year, he said, the finance board trimmed that line item to $20,000 in the town budget that was ultimately approved by voters.

Finance board chairman Steven Merchant, Sr., said that aprt from the $20,000 allocated to the ambulance company, it receives an additional $36,000 from the town for "bundle billing" to cover paramedic services. "I know they're crying poverty but I'm not so sure that's the case. They charge for everything they do. We get their audit and the audit says they're making money." Fees for ambulance services bring in between $60,000 and $80,000 yearly, he said. In addition, ambulance officials did not provide answers to the board's questions about pursuing non-paying clients, he said.

Anthony said that at a meeting about a month ago, the selectmen offered the company $90,000 of the $92,000 it had requested in supplementary funding, to be approved at referendum. The company refused, he said, requesting instead $158,000 annually with a 5 percent increase for each of the subsequent two years.

The ambulance company budget funds two full-time positions as well as 26 per diem employees. Czmyr said that the company’s EMTs are paid $11.25 an hour. “That’s all our funds will allow. We should be doing $17 or better.” The ambulance staff stays on, he said, “just because they want to help people.”

Griswold Ambulance responds to between 1,200 and 1,500 calls each year in Griswold, as well as in Preston, Lisbon, Canterbury, Moosup and Voluntown, all of which have volunteer ambulance service. “We’re the only [service] staffed 24-7” in those towns, Czmyr said. The company’s annual fundraising drive is earmarked toward upgrading to a new ambulance, a process he said takes place every 6 to 7 years.

The company was founded in 1941 under the auspices of American Legion Post 15 by veterans of World War I, said Czmyr. The post continues to oversee the ambulance but does not provide funding. Many of the company’s current EMTs are veterans of recent conflicts in the Middle East, he said.

“They’re top-notch people,” said Ayers. To keep their EMT certification current, they attend an annual 24-hour refresher course and must pass the course exam, he said. Paramedics must also undergo continuing medical education.

EMT Ryan Hargraves, a two-year veteran of Griswold Ambulance, decided to voice his displeasure over the impending sale by erecting a sign on his property, which straddles the Griswold-Voluntown line. The sign, which says “Welcome to Griswold – enter at your own risk. Public safety is not a priority,” was intended to spark questions and raise local awareness, he said.

“My grandfather back in the 1940s was a driver for this ambulance company,” Hargraves said. A takeover by a for-profit company would spell an even higher cost for emergency medical response, he said. In addition, given the choice, a for-profit company would favor responding to out-of-town calls that would guarantee reimbursement over less lucrative local calls, he said. “We’ve got a non-profit. It’s working,” he said. “It’s a local company. I want to see it stay local.”

Ayers said that Medicare and Medicaid reimburse the ambulance company for only a fraction of its expenses per call. Answering a typical call costs the company $550 to $600, while Medicare funds $300 and Medicaid just $130 to $150, he said.

Greg Allard, vice-president of American Ambulance, a for-profit ambulance company headquartered in Norwich, said that his company did not offer a bid for Griswold Ambulance. He said he had spoken to town officials and offered to provide interim EMS coverage if the local ambulance company proved unable to fulfill its commitment to the town. That arrangement would be at no cost, but just for the interim, since emergency coverage is required by state statute, he said. “I would hope that they figure out who their new provider would be within two or three months,” he said.

Allard also said he told the selectmen that if they offered a request for purchase, a contract for American Ambulance service in Griswold would cost $50,000. But he said no RFP was offered.

Anthony said that he agreed to ask the selectmen to meet once again to negotiate with ambulance company officials. He was uncertain whether the other two selectmen would be willing. “I had hoped all along that we’d be able to come to an agreement and continue forward,” he said.

The last day for bid submission on the company was Oct. 19, said Ayers. “We don’t want to go without coverage for the towns. We have between now and Dec. 31 to figure out what we can do. The state just wants to make sure there’s no lapse in coverage,” he said. The state would allow the company to cut shifts or resort to mutual aid, “but that s something we want to avoid. We’re not giving up, but it’s definitely an uphill battle.”

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