March 17, 2013

Towns tussle with tab for shared ambulance service

Expenses rise for Bingham's Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance amid questions about fair cost-sharing.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

BINGHAM - Getting to this small town along the Kennebec River can take some time. About 23 miles north of Skowhegan, it is a half-hour drive up U.S. Route 201, winding along the river on a road other drivers share with logging trucks.

click image to enlarge

Paramedic James Baldwin and EMT Doraine “Dodie” Mathieu for the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service in Bingham. Bingham voters recently rejected a request from the service for about 40 percent of the service’s budget for 2013.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

AMBULANCE RUNS, 2012

Bingham: 253

Bowtown: 1

Caratunk: 4

Concord: 13

Embden: 1

Kingsbury: 1

Lake Moxie: 1

Moscow: 44

Pleasant Ridge: 6

Solon: 3

The Forks: 19

West Forks: 30

Transfers: 95

Source: Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance

The high school has 66 students, and there are just two restaurants.

The town also is the base for the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service, which attends to people in six towns and 11 unorganized townships in northern Somerset County. As in many rural areas in Maine, services such as the ambulance are shared among communities.

Trying to figure out how to pay for shared services can be a challenge in rural communities.

While facing rising costs, the ambulance service here is considering changing the way it is paid in the communities it serves. Yet because the area's population is so small and spread out, the cost of services is higher than in other local districts. In those areas, services can be shared at lower costs to taxpayers or provided by hospitals or private companies.

HIGH COST IN A RURAL AREA

Communities that use Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance pay based on their population, with residents in Bingham paying about half the money collected. Some think the way costs are shared is unfair because Bingham has a nursing home, which accounts for many of the calls, and other areas with smaller populations rely on the ambulance service more heavily during tourist seasons.

In Bingham, residents recently voted down a request from the ambulance service for $69,990, about 40 percent of the service's total budget, for 2013. Instead, local voters opted at the annual town meeting to give $35,000.

As a result, the service has only enough money to operate through June, said Marlene Merrill, president of Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance's board of directors.

Bingham First Selectman Steve Steward said: "They provide a good service, but I think many people feel the upper river towns are not contributing what they should be to the cost."

In 2012, the service made 253 calls in Bingham, 97 of which came from Somerset Rehabilitation & Living Center, said Tim Pomelow, the service's executive director.

"They incorporate that number into Bingham's cost, but there are people from everywhere in that nursing home," Steward said.

Other towns rely on the service more heavily during tourist seasons, he said.

"About 85 percent of properties upriver are camps. They aren't included in the population, but they still use the service," he said.

Steward said the area needs and wants to keep the service, but the cost is too high.

In 2012, Bingham contributed $88,544 to the service's annual budget of $214,627, as well as an extra $12,000 to address a financial shortfall.

Steward said a special town meeting was held to approve giving the additional $12,000 to the service, which ran out of money at the end of 2011.

"They were on the verge of collapse, and we had to bail them out," he said.

Merrill said operating costs have increased, primarily because of the prices of fuel, equipment and insurance.

The service added 24-hour paramedic coverage in August. Before that, Pomelow said, paramedics had been on duty about 80 percent of the time. The new staff includes one critical-care paramedic, the highest level of care available; three other paramedics, and three emergency medical technicians, he said.

"People don't understand that it costs money to have these things. Last year there were some days when there were just no paramedics on duty. Now there is someone there every day," Merrill said.

Steward said he likes the service's quality, but the cost seems too high to some residents.

(Continued on page 2)

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