TOWNSHEND—Though Vermont ambulance services are facing regulatory and financial uncertainty, Rescue Inc. is looking to expand.
The Brattleboro-based ambulance service has plans to move its northern operations base from a small substation at Grace Cottage Hospital to a new, much-larger building in West Townshend. The move will allow Rescue to operate more efficiently while also adding staff and equipment in the West River Valley, Operations Chief Drew Hazelton said.
The relocation, according to permit-application documents, will cost more than $500,000. But Hazelton said he expects to soon launch a capital campaign, and he said lingering, statewide questions about Medicare funding and other issues aren’t a reason to postpone the project.
“From our perspective, we could either sit and wait for the politics to hopefully shake out at some point,” Hazelton said. “Or, we can move ahead with the facts that we know, which are that people are still going to get injured, they’re still going to be sick, and we still need to provide a high-quality service. At the end of the day, that’s what our project is about.”
Hazelton, through Rescue Inc. and his leadership role within the Vermont Ambulance Association, has been among those pushing hard in recent months for financial help for the state’s first medical responders.
The dilemma is that, even as demand increases for costly, complex mobile medical services, the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rates have remained unchanged since 2008. Also, a complex reimbursement system means ambulance services receive no money for medications, or for a call in which they don’t transport a patient.
As a result, medics say they’re often losing hundreds of dollars when they respond to calls for help.
The ambulance association took its case to Montpelier earlier this year, prompting a proposal in which a new tax on ambulance services could be used to draw down more federal money, thus ultimately increasing reimbursements.
Legislative action aside, Hazelton wonders what else might be on the horizon in 2017 as a new governor and a new president take office. “Nobody can really tell us what health care is going to look like,” he said.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Rescue administrators believe they’ve outgrown their quarters at Grace Cottage Hospital.
Rescue branched out from its Brattleboro headquarters to take over the Townshend hospital’s former ambulance service in 2005. “Grace Cottage has been a great host for more than 10 years, give us living space for our staff and garage space for our equipment there,” Hazelton said.
He said there are some significant drawbacks, though, including a lack of storage, office and ambulance-decontamination space. Currently, “we move ambulances from Townshend to Brattleboro for cleaning,” Hazelton said.
Meanwhile, call volumes continue to increase. Hazelton summed up the issue in permitting documents: “Our current location ... does not provide us with the necessary space to operate a modern EMS system.”
Rescue Inc. last year acquired a vacant, 2.36-acre parcel on Route 30 in West Townshend, not far from the West Townshend Country Store. The ambulance service is seeking a state Act 250 land-use permit for an approximately 4,500-square-foot building with parking; indoor vehicle storage; office and staff space; and cleaning facilities.
Rather than finding an existing building, “looking long-term, we decided it would make sense for us to build a facility that we can operate more efficiently out of,” Hazelton said.
In terms of driving distance, the new building will be about five miles from Grace Cottage Hospital. But Hazelton said it’s the right spot for Rescue.
“We looked at the coverage area that we currently serve in the West River Valley,” he said. “We found the center of it, which is about West Townshend.”
The new location allows quick access to the region’s major throughway as well as access to a fiber-optic line, which Hazelton said is essential to modern medical record-keeping.
Perhaps most importantly, the West Townshend headquarters will allow space for more staff.
“We anticipate, in the relatively near future, increasing our [West River Valley] staffing from where we’re at now, with two providers up there, to four, so that we have two staffed ambulances,” Hazelton said.
That will cut down on the need for Rescue to send backup ambulances from the main station in Brattleboro to Townshend, he added.
Grace Cottage Hospital will be losing its direct, physical connection to Rescue Inc. — a connection Grace Cottage Chief Executive Officer Roger Allbee said has been beneficial in many ways.
In addition to instant responses from Rescue’s on-site medics, Allbee said it is also “really about integrating their team with our team. There’s some mutual training going on. So having them at a distance will be a change.”
At the same time, Allbee expects a continued relationship between the two entities and said he supports Rescue’s growth.
Rescue Inc. administrators are hoping to complete the permitting process and start construction on the West Townshend station later this year, but Allbee said he has informed Hazelton that, “we want you here as long as you want to be here.”
Finishing the project will depend on successfully raising money. Hazelton said Rescue is seeking grant funding and also is putting together an intensive capital campaign to cover the building’s costs.
“We’re committed to making this work for the citizens,” he said. “We’re going to provide the service, and we believe we’ve got the support of the communities.”
The new station’s host community already has thrown its support behind Rescue’s plans, with the Townshend Selectboard penning a letter calling the ambulance service’s permanent presence a “critical necessity.”
“We in Townshend can think of no better way to guarantee that the citizens of the West River Valley will continue to receive quality emergency medical services than by permitting, endorsing and financially supporting Rescue Inc.’s plans to build a new facility in West Townshend,” the letter says.