Ambulance Chatter Crosses Town Line

November 6, 2018

CHELMSFORD -- The discussion on ambulance services in Chelmsford has been an emotional one each time it has come up over the years.

It’s often couched as pitting people versus profits: One side says it could help the town’s finances; the other says changing the status quo will put people’s lives in danger.

Now, the most recent reappearance of the issue has ensnared a neighboring town.

Comments made at Chelmsford’s fall Town Meeting about Westford’s ambulance service have prompted Westford Town Manager Jodi Ross to clarify its finances.

The person who made the original comments, Trinity EMS President/CEO John Chemaly, stands by them.

“By offering ambulance services, Westford is able to subsidize its fire coverage while providing a higher level of medical care during our responses,” Ross said.

For more than two decades, Chelmsford’s ambulance service has been provided by Trinity EMS. Westford had also outsourced ambulances, using services from local hospitals, before proposing to bring ambulances in-house in 2010.

At the first night of Chelmsford’s fall Town Meeting on Oct. 15, Chemaly gave a counter-presentation to that of Selectman Emily Antul, who spoke on behalf of an article that sought $55,000 in free cash to fund a study to determine whether Chelmsford would benefit from an in-house ambulance service and fire station consolidation. Town Meeting representatives ultimately voted against providing the funding.

During his presentation, Chemaly said Westford is providing $500,000 from its general fund to its Ambulance Enterprise Fund on an annual basis, and suggested Chelmsford, too, would operate at an annual loss of at least $182,000 if it were to take on an in-house ambulance service. He also suggested Chelmsford would need to call upon mutual aid ambulances about 300 times annually, resulting in slower response times for emergencies.

“If your loved one is waiting 20, 25, 30 minutes for a mutual aid ambulance from God knows where, how would you like that?” Chemaly said to Town Meeting.

Chemaly’s example relied on a model where Chelmsford had two in-house ambulances; Westford operates three.

Ross said it’s true Westford supplies funds to its ambulance service, but that number varies each year depending upon estimated revenue and budgeted expenses. She said bringing ambulance services under the purview of the town has resulted in faster emergency response times and revenue to offset the cost of running the Fire Department.

Over the past five fiscal years, the Westford general fund has provided the following amounts for ambulance services:

Fiscal 2019: $540,823

Fiscal 2018: $494,403

Fiscal 2017: $477,533

Fiscal 2016: $351,848

Fiscal 2015: $382,023.

Ross said the subsidy amounts are determined by the difference between estimated revenues and total budgeted expenses. She attributed the fiscal 2019 subsidy increase as part of the expense associated with plans to purchase an ambulance this year.

Using the fiscal 2019 budget as an example, Ross said Westford is spending about $660,000 more this year than it would if it didn’t have its own ambulance service.

“However, if the town were to hypothetically stop offering ambulance services, we would still have to pay firefighters to man the three fire stations at costs higher than the general fund subsidy,” she said.

Over the past five fiscal years, the Ambulance Enterprise has generated an average revenue of $910,262 per year, producing approximately $250,000 in additional revenue to subsidize the firefighters, Ross said.

The estimated revenue for fiscal 2019 is about $1.2 million, up from $890,000 in fiscal 2018, she said.

“In our opinion, it’s a very good model that has served our residents very well, and the earnings will continue to grow as we add more paramedic/firefighters,” Ross said.

To keep the cost of using the service fair for Westford residents, they are required to pay only the amount their health insurance covers, she said. Non-residents must pay the full cost, Ross said.

She said Westford called for mutual aid 93 times during the last fiscal year, and provided mutual aid to other communities 99 times in the same period.

In a follow-up interview, Chemaly said he stands by what he said at Town Meeting. He said he understands how Westford could have revenues from the ambulances turned back to the town, “but not enough to cover the ambulance enterprise.”

“The bottom line for me is that the general fund, whether it be Westford or Chelmsford or whatever town it might be, the general fund is kicking in money toward the ambulance because the ambulance revenues themselves can’t cover cost of the enterprise,” Chemaly said. “In this fiscal environment we’re talking about in the next couple years there could be a deficit (in Chelmsford), and we didn’t want to see it add to the deficit.”

He also questioned whether Westford’s numbers included the “millions” that would be paid out later in pension, health care and other costs associated with retirement.

“That has to be added into the cost, and that’s far more than $250,000, I would think,” Chemaly said.

Ross previously said that “all salaries, expenses and benefits” are included in the enterprise budget.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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