Special Report: EMS Investigation Part 2
Updated: Thursday, February 6 2014, 07:41 PM EST
Emergency Medical Technician Benny Lovelace remembers a 911 call he responded to on Friday, November 1.
"At 18:51 hours we received a call on an unresponsive male off 221 South," recounted Lovelace, who works for Rutherford County Rescue Squad.
He says that patient laid waiting on a bathroom floor for nearly an hour because a county paramedic that also responded wanted to use a county ambulance instead of his rescue squad truck.
"She notified us at that time that she was having one of her [Advanced Life Support] trucks come and get the patient," said Lovelace.
And the rescue squad chief says what Lovelace witnessed is common practice in Rutherford County.
"It happens in the snow, it happens at 12 o'clock at night, two in the morning," says Chief Allen Emory. "Sometimes they will pull the patient off our truck and place it on their truck and try to transport it to the hospital because whoever transports that patient - you know they're going to get paid for it.
County EMS officials say they have never heard of a situation like this happening.
"No. No. We're not a money based, driven organization," said EMS Operation Manager Terry Baynard.
Rutherford County leaders changed their Standard Operating Guidelines in 2013, after deciding that the three local rescue squads would no longer transport very low-level emergency patients. Instead, advanced-level county EMS paramedics would start driving them to the hospital. The policy change resulted in revenue for the squads being slashed, while the county took in about $1 million more last year.
"It isn't about the patient condition, it's about how much money we can make off of it," says Former Volunteer Lifesaving Chief Tommy Raye.
When asked why the change happened - initially, Rutherford EMS heads and County Manager Carl Classen said Medical Director Bobby England wanted the change. But later Classen said he and his staff were the ones that presented the idea to local leaders as a way to bring in more money.
"The commissioners said 'We want to not increase the amount of taxpayer dollars going to the emergency medical service, so we want to keep that cost down so go ahead and and do the non-emergency medical transports."
But emory says county ambulances can't handle the extra load and patients are paying the price. He also worries the policy will put him out of business. Volunteer Lifesaving - one of three local rescue squads - abruptly closed its doors two months ago, saying the new policy cut off its business and forced it to shut down.
"They probably cut my call volume about three quarters," says Raye, who has since taken a job with Emory's squad.
Emory threatened to sue the the county in 2013, saying it violated its contract with his squad by limiting the patients his EMTs can transport. And then weeks later, county leaders told about ten first responders to quit their part-time jobs with rescue squads or be fired, citing federal labor laws about dual employment.
"We learned that some of our employees were also doing hours for some of the rescue squads, and were actually getting paid for this," said Classen about the move.
The Department of Labor told News 13 there's possibility that there may be no legal conflict and would investigate the situation if the county makes the request.
The county has not made the request, Classen said the county was trying to fix what its attorney said was a problem.
News 13 also contacted five other mountain counties and found it's common to share employees with local rescue squads.
"I was surprised and I wondered exactly what they were basing their concerns over," said Buncombe County EMS Director Jerry Vehaun. "I haven't been aware of any changes in wage and hour that might have affected an arrangement like that."