A four-town Emergency Medical Services Review Committee agreed to authorize town managers to begin contract negotiations for ambulance services with North East Mobile Health Services.

Committee members were split between supporting the same number of ambulances and paramedic staffing as in the current contract, and reducing the number of paramedics from three to two.

Members of the review committee representing Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Hope met Jan. 11 to talk about how to deal with rising costs for emergency ambulance services. At a Jan. 3 meeting, North East CEO Butch Russell informed the committee that the proposed annual cost for ambulance services for the four towns will triple from the current $79,000 to around $300,000, beginning in July.

Russell has explained that the reason for the increase is that the emergency ambulance services provided by the company cost more than the towns are currently paying. He has provided four options, with varying levels of service. The cost to maintain the current level of service is $315,532, for three paramedic-staffed ambulances every day, and two paramedic-staffed ambulances every night, seven days a week. The least costly option, $217,180, reduces the number of ambulances available, and the number of paramedics staffing the ambulances.

Hope Selectman Dick Crabtree urged the group to consider a reduction to two paramedics on the weekend to reduce costs. He said he favored one of the options Russell offered that would cost about $245,000 annually. Crabtree maintained that even though the current contract calls for three paramedic-staffed ambulances during the daytime, the paramedics are not always available for emergency calls, because they also transport patients between hospitals and nursing homes. He pointed out that Russell’s numbers showed fewer hospital and nursing home transports occur on the weekends. Town Administrator Samantha Mank supported Crabtree's prosposal. Selectman Sarah Smith also attended the meeting.

Camden Select Board member John French took an opposing view, maintaining that current paramedic and ambulance services could be the difference in saving someone's life. He proposed extending the current level of service for one to two years while the four towns investigated all of their options. Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell confirmed that the town's Select Board wanted to maintain the current level of service, and readiness for emergencies. French pointed out that the cost of emergency calls to the four towns is subsidized by North East's transport business with local medical facilities, and that going on their own would cost much more than the $315,000.

Rockport Select Board member Ken McKinley advocated for contract negotiations, rather than agreeing to any one of Russell's proposals without negotiation.

Camden Select Board member Marc Ratner suggested a new option, that would maintain the three ambulances every day and two every night, but reduce the staffing on one of the daytime ambulances to Advanced EMT staffing. Russell said in actual use, at least one-third of day time ambulance trips was a hospital or nursing home transport that did not require paramedic level service. He agreed to develop a cost proposal for this level of service.

Town Administrator David Kinney reported that Lincolnville selectmen are relying on the expertise of the review committee regarding staffing levels, and to bring information back to the towns. He said the board is in favor of maintaining the four-town partnership. At the same time, selectmen favor the review committee, or a task force, to look at all the options for the future, including a municipally-run ambulance service.

Committee members learned that North East handled 76 emergency ambulance trips from the Knox County Regional Airport to Pen Bay Medical Center, and did not seek reimbursement for those trips. The group discussed reaching out to the towns of Vinalhaven and North Haven to discuss payment for the services and directed Russell to look into the use of the ambulance service by the towns of Vinalhaven and North Haven. Russell believes it would cost island towns less to pay a subsidy to North East as part of the four-town group, than to pay a per trip fee to the nearby Rockland EMS.

The EMS Review Committee sent a tentative date of Jan. 30 at 4 p.m. for their next meeting, in the Washington Street Conference Room in Camden.