BRATTLEBORO — A plan to drop the town's nearly 60-year contract with Rescue Inc. for a lower-priced emergency medical service lacks a state license just weeks before its scheduled July 1 start.
Complicating matters, the current private nonprofit provider says it won't respond to local calls without negotiated compensation after June 30.
As part of a presumptive transition plan for the local fire department to take over EMS duties, the Selectboard abruptly entered into a contract with the for-profit Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, N.H.
The Vermont Department of Health's Office of Emergency Medical Services is reviewing Golden Cross's application for a license, which requires sufficient backup in case the provider's two ambulances stationed in Brattleboro are busy.
“If someone is facing a life-threatening situation such as cardiac arrest, a significant hemorrhage, or choking, a half an hour can be the difference between life and death,” state EMS Chief Will Moran told VTDigger. “Ideally, we would see the applicant making decisions about who's going to be providing mutual aid that takes that into consideration.”
But that question has grown harder to answer, as the private nonprofit Rescue, feeling burned by Brattleboro leaders dropping its contract with little notice or public debate, has said it won't respond to local calls unless contractually obligated to as of July 1.
“We are not providing uncompensated service for the town,” Rescue Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton confirmed to VTDigger.
Hazelton has told his district's remaining 14 communities they won't have to pay more money this year to offset Brattleboro's unanticipated pullout - nor would Windham County's largest EMS provider assist the latter municipality for free.
“Is it reasonable to dissolve a 56-year relationship without any discussion and then ask us to provide the backup coverage you need?” Hazelton said.
Brattleboro leaders nonetheless wrote Rescue on June 3 seeking “uncompensated mutual aid” - a request that interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland summed up as “a starting point for a discussion.”
In response, Rescue said it was open to offering Brattleboro paid assistance under the stipulation that local leaders acknowledge their role in the “damaged nature” of their working relationship.
The EMS provider also said it needs to know the number and nature of calls Brattleboro anticipates it would seek help with - something local leaders have yet to answer.
“We can't commit to providing service,” Hazelton said, “until we know what we're being asked to provide.”
Rockingham: 40 mutual aid requests in five months
The question of backup isn't a hypothetical.
Rockingham, served by Golden Cross for a decade, has sought outside support about 40 times during the past five months of 2022 because of the for-profit provider's challenge in fulfilling its two-ambulance contract.
“To be blunt, they don't always have the ability to staff two units, and we've had to call mutual aid more than we like,” Rockingham Municipal Manager Scott Pickup said.
“We were a little caught by surprise that Golden Cross was such an aggressive bidder in Brattleboro,” Pickup said. “Operationally, that seems like a lot. I hope it works, but I have my concerns.”
Rockingham reported almost 700 EMS calls this past year, compared with Brattleboro's total of nearly 2,800.
Golden Cross didn't respond to multiple requests for comment by VTDigger.
Brattleboro officials have yet to publicly detail their backup plan, although the local fire department told its state district EMS board last month that, after Rescue, it turns to Keene, N.H., or Greenfield, Mass. - each a half-hour away.
At a five-hour meeting on June 7, the Selectboard didn't publicly address the seriousness of the situation, even though several townspeople did.
“It feels to the community that it is policy by happenstance and there should be more discussion for changing something so significant,” Carolyn Conrad said.
In response, several board members complained that the press hadn't fully covered their two main reasons for the switch.
The first is the town's projection that it can run the service itself and avoid paying Rescue's annual $285,600 bill - although a $38,700 feasibility study just commissioned has yet to confirm that finding.
The second is that board members didn't like the wording of a March 25 letter in which Rescue told the town it wouldn't work for free.
“We're the town and we can hire contractor A or contractor B,” board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said last week. “Contractor A sent us a nasty letter, so we go with contractor B.”
'No rule that says they have to respond'
The state isn't concerned with money or manners but, instead, the medical soundness of Brattleboro's plan.
Although Vermont's EMS chief summed up Rescue as “a robust service with robust resources,” he noted the private nonprofit was under no obligation to help the town with its takeover once its contract expires June 30.
“There is no rule that says they have to respond,” Moran said.
The state is continuing to review the Golden Cross license application and cannot say yet when it will issue a ruling.
“It's our goal to support the applicant through the process,” Moran said, “and, at the same time, keep the public's interest in mind.”