ELLSWORTH — Representatives from Northern Light Medical Transport (formerly Capital Ambulance) met with city officials on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of housing two ambulances in the Ellsworth Fire Department beginning in early November.
The arrangement would be on a short-term basis, for six to nine months.
“It’s a temporary accommodation, very different from what we were looking at back in August,” said City Manager David Cole.
The proposal is to station two ambulances, each staffed with two responders, in the Ellsworth Fire Department.
Northern Light would pay for the $8,000 worth of anticipated physical changes to the facility that would be required, said Joe Kellner, vice president of emergency services and community programs for the organization.
Northern Light also would be “responsible for ensuring no incremental expense to the city through payment of reasonable utility expenses and capital improvements.”
The amount the group would pay in utility expenses has not yet been determined, said Deputy City Manager Tammy Mote, but she stressed that the arrangement would be “fiscally neutral.”
The organization would provide its own insurance and handle all billing. More detailed financial information, including a figure on what Northern Light would pay the city, will be available before Monday’s City Council meeting.
Cole was quick to stress that this was a temporary arrangement and did not mean the city has decided to get into the ambulance business.
“Nothing has changed in the big picture in terms of the guidance from the council back in August,” Cole said. There will still be public workshops on the future of emergency services in the city.
Northern Light took over contracts left by the closing of County Ambulance on Aug. 31, housing its ambulances at Acadia Village Resort and Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital, Kellner said.
“That wasn’t really a permanent solution. That was a Band-Aid,” said Northern Light representative Ed Moreshead. The group had been looking into options for the winter because the spaces the trucks are housed in now are unheated.
Northern Light had found a potential five-year lease in Ellsworth for around $52,000, Kellner said.
But after Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor decided to form their own ambulance corps and Surry chose to contract with Peninsula Ambulance Corps, Northern Light found that it would no longer be able to afford to house its trucks in Ellsworth, Kellner said.
“The economics of this have changed dramatically,” he said.
Kellner said the loss of contracts with the three towns have cost Northern Light $83,564, resulting in the organization being in the red around $67,514.
“There would be some savings from not responding to those communities,” Kellner said, but the ultimate impact would be a loss for Northern Light.
Kellner acknowledged that lift assist calls in far-flung locales were not profitable, but said the service fee paid by each town meant responding to those calls would still have been a “net positive” in terms of revenue.
It was after the contract changes that the organization approached officials in Ellsworth, Kellner said.
The group did not want to give an “ultimatum,” he said, but wrote in a presentation that “without support from Ellsworth, the service, at the current staffing level, becomes unsustainable.”
As part of the deal, Kellner added, Northern Light crews would respond with the Ellsworth Fire Department “at no cost,” help with chores and would train crews together “to enhance response.”
Ellsworth Fire Chief Richard Tupper said he was pleased with the potential arrangement. To fit the ambulances, the department would have to find a place and cover for its boat and a pickup truck, Tupper said. Officials said the physical changes would possibly include partition curtains and other small changes.
Asked why the group would commit to spending $8,000 for a short-term arrangement, Moreshead answered that it was better than signing a five-year lease for $52,000 and gave the organization “more flexibility.”
Moreshead and Kellner also presented other options on Tuesday afternoon, including the city paying a subsidy to Northern Light, which he said would come in at around $72,000 for the first year. This is the arrangement made in several other towns, including Trenton, Eastbrook and Lamoine. Towns pay $9 per capita for the first year, with a 3 percent increase annually.
Northern Light Medical Transport is affiliated with, but operates separately from, Northern Light Health, Kellner said.
“We have some support from the system” for purchasing equipment and other items, he said, but the organization is largely financially independent from “the mother ship.”
Northern Light Health (then Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems) operated at a loss of $24 million in 2017, according to financial statements. Financial documents for Northern Light Medical Transport were not publicly available because the group incorporated as a nonprofit this year.
Councilors will take up the issue at the monthly meeting of the Ellsworth City Council on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.