FLORENCE — City residents will soon be served by a new ambulance service with the City Council’s decision Tuesday to end its four-year relationship with Lauderdale EMS.
The council voted 5-1 to sign a contract with Shoals Ambulance Service. The Lauderdale County Commission must decide at its Oct. 22 meeting whether to sign a contract with the new ambulance service or continue with Lauderdale EMS, which is owned by Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield.
The ambulance service contract is a joint agreement between the city and the county. If the county chooses to stay with Lauderdale EMS, the contracts would have to be bid again to mark the end of the city/county relationship.
The County Commission met Tuesday afternoon in a lengthy work session to discuss the contract, but did not reach a decision. The City Council reopened the bid process almost two months ago, based on potential contract violations regarding how certain ambulances are staffed.
Florence Council President James Barnhart voted against the new contract Tuesday, saying there were too many rumors going around.
“There have been a lot of rumors, and truths, going around about Lauderdale EMS not meeting the terms of the contract,” he said. “There have been no complaints, to my knowledge, in the last four years. Then, in the last two months, we are hearing this. It’s more than coincidental.”
The ambulance contract has become ensnared in the larger battle for market share and control between RegionalCare Hospital Partners, a private company that bought formerly public Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, and publicly-owned Keller and its business partner, Huntsville Hospital. RegionalCare has applied to the state to build a new hospital in Florence, which is opposed by Keller and Huntsville.
Russell Pigg, chief executive officer of Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, attended Tuesday’s council meeting and talked with ambulance service owner Bryan Gibson. After the council approved the contract with Gibson, Pigg shook hands with each council member after the meeting ended.
Asked why he attended the meeting, Pigg said he was just “visiting with the council, which I do from time to time.”
For nearly three hours Tuesday afternoon, the Lauderdale County Commission discussed the ambulance contract with representatives from Shoals Ambulance and Lauderdale EMS during its work session.
During the work session, commissioners heard a brief overview of the proposals from representatives from the two companies before they started asking questions.
The commissioners dissected several aspects of the proposals, ranging from staffing to replacement of vehicles to transporting patients to the location of ambulances.
Bruce Carson, director of Lauderdale EMS, and Gibson, owner of Shoals Ambulance, also discussed charges, as well as Medicare and Medicaid supplements and uninsured patients.
Much of the discussion was the same as when the two met with the Florence City Council during a work session on Sept. 18.
At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Rhea Fulmer asked Gibson what affiliation he had with RegionalCare.
“I have no connection with RegionalCare,” Gibson said.
“But everybody who has anything to do with ECM is calling me on behalf of Shoals Ambulance,” Fulmer said.
Gibson said he is the sole owner of Shoals Ambulance Service.
Fulmer said she is not pro-Keller or anti-ECM.
“The ambulance service is a big issue to me. I want to take care of the people of this county,” she said.
Fulmer said that two years ago, the former CEO of ECM, Joe Roach, told her that he would get the ambulance contract and that “those Mercedes ambulances are being painted as we speak.”
Shoals Ambulance Service uses Mercedes-Benz ambulances.
Commissioner Fay Parker also asked about complaints lodged against Lauderdale EMS.
Lauderdale Emergency Management Agency Director George Grabryan said he had only one written complaint against Lauderdale EMS.
Carson said Lauderdale EMS has made more than 40,000 calls in the four years of service for the county.
“One complaint, 40,000 calls. That’s not bad,” Commissioner Larry Irons said.
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757, or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.