MATTOON -- The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to affirm the city's denial of Abbott EMS' application to operate as a private ambulance provider in Mattoon.
The council also heard audience members' concerns about the July 25 elimination of the Mattoon Fire Department's ambulance service increasing the response times for ambulances in some instances. City officials responded that they are trying to resolve these concerns, and they elaborated on the city budget deficit and other fiscal issues that led to the elimination of the MFD service.
Regarding Abbott EMS, the council held a hearing on this emergency medical service company's appeal of its ambulance provider application being denied by the city last month. The council voted 5-0 to affirm the denial decision made by fire Chief Tony Nichols, in his oversight role under the city's new ordinances for private ambulance services.
During the hearing, Nichols said the new ordinances limit the number of ambulance licenses to two. He said Abbott's was one of three applications for licenses. The other two applicants were Dunn's Ambulance and Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service, which were already operating in Mattoon prior to July 25. The applications of these two providers were approved.
Nichols said his denial of Abbott's request was based on "lack of information in the application." Nichols added that he also had concerns about Abbott being fully operational in a timely manner in Mattoon.
Abbott Operations Manager Brian Gerth said the application asked for specific details on the employees, ambulances and facility that the company planned to locate in Mattoon. He said Abbot, as a company from outside of Mattoon, had to answer "to be determined" to some questions. He said Abbott had anticipated that the application process would be the starting point for finalizing these details with the city.
In Abbott's appeal, Gerth said the company has tried to clarify that it could be partially operational in Mattoon within weeks and then fully operational within 90 days out of a local facility. He said Abbott would hire 28 full-time employees, plus part-time, and would deploy six ambulances at peak hours during its rotation for primary ambulance coverage in Mattoon under the 911 system.
Abbott is part of a nationwide company based in St. Louis. Effingham County Board Chairman James Niemann said during the hearing that Abbott has been the primary provider of ambulance service in Efffingham County for about a year now.
"From the county board's side, we have been very pleased with their service," Niemann said.
After the appeal hearing, the council heard concerns from audience members during the public comment section at the beginning of the regularly scheduled meeting. Mattoon resident Mary Susan Clendening said she called 911 for a blood pressure issue last month and had to wait for more than 15 minutes until a Charleston Fire Department ambulance arrived at her home. She said this wait time is "totally unacceptable."
Resident Terri Landrus said the city should put Mattoon firefighters back in their ambulance rigs because, "They roll when you call." Landrus said a patient could die because of increased ambulance response times and the city would then face a lawsuit.
Resident Stephanie Merkle said her sister suffered a stroke Friday evening and had to wait 28 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at her Mattoon home as local emergency responders also dealt with a wreck on Interstate 57.
After the meeting, Mitchell-Jerdan officer manager Kendra Jerdan said official records for that call show that one of their ambulances arrived at the scene within approximately 4 minutes of being dispatched. The official records, as confirmed by city officials, show that the duration of the call from the time of dispatch to the time of the patient's arrival at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center was approximately 28 minutes.
Merkle could not be reached by press time Tuesday night for further comment.
Mattoon firefighter Kenny Clatfelter asked about the city's plan for increasing ambulance response times, whether it be licensing a third provider, stepping up enforcement of the ordinances, or something else.
City Administrator Kyle Gill said the city did not give the two private ambulance services a lot of time to prepare for the elimination of the fire department's ambulance service. He said the private providers are hiring more staff and getting new ambulances in place to meet the needs of the community.
Mayor Tim Gover and council member Preston Owen elaborated on the fiscal issues that led to the council voting to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service. These issues include rising personnel costs, particularly for pensions, that are consuming a majority of the city's annual property tax revenue and have led to the city operating under a deficit budget for 2018-19.
Owen said this is "not a firefighter issue, it's a pension issue in Illinois" afflicting all local government that bear pension costs, adding that the state needs to reform pension requirements. He said the city has needed to cut personnel across the board by 35 percent during the last 15 years, including police officers and public works repair crews, and will need to cut more.
Owen said the city is faced with the prospect of cutting more police officers, not repairing roads, or cutting a fire department ambulance service that he said duplicates the work of private providers. He said the Mattoon fire department has among the best firefighter-paramedics in Illinois, "But that is not what we can afford."
Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud
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