The abrupt closure of a private ambulance service has left Sampson County officials searching for another method by which to provide medical transports for local patients.
Johnston Ambulance Service, known as JAS, was the largest privately-held ambulance service in North Carolina. After more than 40 years in business, during which it served 17 counties in eastern and central North Carolina, the business was suddenly shut down last week. That meant locations in a dozen counties were closed down — one on Warsaw Road in Clinton among them — ambulances taken off the road and approximately 400 full- and part-time employees laid off.
“The abrupt closing of Johnston Ambulance Services on Wednesday has left a void in ambulance services in eastern North Carolina. Like numerous other hospitals, many of Sampson Regional’s patients have depended on JAS for medical transport,” a statement from Sampson Regional Medical Center officials stated. “The closure this week has posed a short-term yet significant challenge for our hospital, as it has affected all in-county ambulance transport and has moderately impacted our out-of-county transport.”
Due to franchise laws governing how ambulance agencies can operate within a county, Johnston Ambulance Service’s sudden closing “has delayed patient transport and impacted the ability of some patients to receive certain outpatient services,” SRMC officials stated.
JAS owner Maynard Price said the company notified state and county officials, area nursing homes, and EMS agencies on Tuesday they would be closing immediately. Price, owner of the company since 1999, said he was forced to close because JAS is owed millions of dollars that he cannot collect, citing issues with the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and Medicare.
JAS provided a number of services to Sampson patients and those across the eastern part of the state, among them wheelchair van transports, basic and advanced life support transports, bariatric transport and responding to 911 emergency calls. In Sampson, JAS had a franchise for convalescent (non-emergency) transportation. Until last week, JAS was the only service with a franchise in Sampson.
Assistant County manager and public information officer Susan Holder said JAS typically ran between 300-350 non-emergency transport calls a month, to include patients moving to and from nursing homes and the hospital, or to and from dialysis, among other situations.
“From time to time, they also may be called upon to provide backup services for EMS; however, we have typically only used them in this capacity less than two dozen times a year,” Holder said.
Following the announcement, county administrators met with EMS Director Ronald Bass and County Attorney Joel Starling to weigh options moving forward to continue extending services to JAS patients suddenly without them. Sampson Regional CEO Shawn Howerton was also working closely with Bass and county staff to develop an emergency franchise process.
“Under the county’s convalescent transportation franchise ordinance, in an emergency situation, we can temporarily utilize other qualified vendors to provide such non-emergency transport services,” Holder noted at the end of last week. “Our attorney advises that the immediate JAS closure would fall under this provision, so we will be seeking temporary services from other vendors.”
While working to get those agreements in place, Sampson was “fortunate” to be able to utilize the services of some of its volunteer rescue squads for convalescent transports, Holder said. Hospital officials called the short-term move a gracious — and much-needed — measure to deal with the situation.
“Because this process required a couple days of legal work, Sampson County EMS has graciously aided the hospital with in-county transfers,” SRMC officials stated. “An emergency franchise process is expected to be in place soon so that additional ambulance services can be called upon for in-county transport.”
Hospital officials said the JAS closing would bring longer ambulance transport times in Sampson for the time being, along with many other hospitals in the region, but shared their hope that additional resources could be brought on to ease that problem sooner rather than later.
“We expect the situation to improve over the weekend and look forward to returning to greater normalcy over the next few weeks as other agencies increase ability to safely manage the volume of in-county transport previously served by JAS,” hospital officials stated. “Our leadership and staff have been alerted to current circumstances and are communicating with us about any delays so that hospital administration can facilitate other transportation options.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.