Concerned father’s complaint over emergency services response time reveals debate over Vital Care

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At Monday’s County Commission workshop, a father’s concerns over the ambulance service’s response time sparked a discussion about Vital Care.

“What’s the response time on a call here?” David Ketterman asked the commission.

Ketterman called 911 twice this weekend when his one year old daughter was unresponsive. The dispatcher wasn’t able to tell him how long it would take to get an ambulance to his Jacksboro home, he told the commission.

“Their exact words were ‘they did not know how long exactly it would take,’” Ketterman said. “You get that comfortable feeling when you know someone’s one the way.”

The first time Ketterman called was Friday. Vital Care came to his home. He called again on Sunday, but said he would take matters into his own hands, leaving Campbell County to meet an ambulance at Lake City.

While addressing Ketterman’s concerns, Campbell County Ambulance Director Danny Sheckles began to talk about the drawbacks of allowing two ambulance services to operate within Campbell County.

Every surrounding county has a closed county, Sheckles said. Before May 2007, Campbell County had a contract with North Regional and only allowed the Campbell County Ambulance Service to operate. North Regional transports patients to Jellico Community Hospital. While the property tax generates about $136,000 for ambulance services, the majority of its budget comes from patient fees, Sheckles said. About $100,000 of the money from the property tax goes to North Regional, and $36,000 goes to the Campbell County Ambulance Service, Sheckles said.

In May 2007, the dynamic changed when the county commission allowed a private service, Vital Care, to operate within the county.

Vital Care is now taking many calls the county would have previously handled, and therefore taking a lot of the revenue that could go to the county’s ambulance service, Sheckles said.

“All of that revenue was going to the county to operate, why the change?” Sheckles said.

But Campbell County Ambulance Service gets priority for 911 calls, Campbell County 911 Director Charlie Hutson said.

Calls are referred to Vital Care when all Campbell County Ambulance Service Resources are out on calls, or when an emergency comes in and Vital Care is closer to the call.

“Seconds save lives,” Hutson said.

Sheckles estimated Vital Care makes about $750,000, and puts $500,000 into its services, with a $250,000 profit for its owners. This wouldn’t happen with the county ambulance service, which is non-profit. The county ambulance service would put that revenue back into itself, Sheckles said.

“Our operational cost is low,” Sheckles said. “If that potential $750,000 could be placed in the county’s budget, where could we expand? We could probably do two or three additional stations if we had that revenue.”

While the county’s ambulance service can’t refuse to transport patients, Vital Care is going after the higher paying calls, Sheckles said.

“We feel the private companies (are) ‘cherry picking’ the higher paying calls and giving us the lower paying calls,” Sheckles said.

Kamile Barnes, who works both at Campbell County 911 and for Vital Care denied allegation. In emergency situations, Vital Care will not refuse to transport patients who don’t have the money to pay, Barnes said.

“If we have somebody available, we take the call,” Barnes said “If it is an emergency, we will take the call.”

At the Campbell County 911 Board meeting last Thursday Sheckles had mentioned requiring Vial Care to pay dispatch fees. The 911 board had discussed charging North Regional dispatch fees. North Regional and Vital Care experience similar call volumes, Sheckles said.

“If you want more coverage, you’ve got to stop what’s going on and allow us to take it,” Sheckles said.