S.C ambulance company: Without more funding, hurricane evacuations of hospitals may take longer

Updated: Feb. 18, 2021 at 7:28 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A South Carolina private ambulance company is warning the pandemic’s impact on their industry may make it “impossible” to evacuate nursing homes and hospitals as quickly as they usually do ahead of hurricanes.

Josh Watts is the CEO of MedTrust, a private ambulance company based out of Charleston County, and he’s calling on lawmakers to designate more relief funding to companies like his which have been hit with “significantly increased costs with no increased revenue.”

“Labor costs, equipment costs, and PPE costs have gone up and the revenue has stayed flat and, in some cases, gone down,” Watts said. “There has to be some consideration significantly at the federal, state, and local levels for the people who are doing this work on behalf of the citizens.”

Private ambulance companies are primarily responsible for transferring patients to different facilities or hospitals and bringing some of them back to their homes. Watts said a majority of the relief funds have been given to municipalities and hospitals.

“We’re not what shows up when you call 911,” Watts said. “We’re everything else.”

These companies also play a major role in evacuating patients out of hospitals and nursing homes ahead of hurricanes.

“If we start losing private agencies because we can’t solve this financial piece, then there’s not going to be enough capacity to [evacuate] safely,” Watts said. “If we had to answer the call today, it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to do it at the same level.”

He said his company along with more than a dozen others are responsible for getting thousands of patients out safely in a process that typically takes two to three days.

“If our resources are challenged, and if we don’t have more heads up, then you run the risk of not being able to get everyone out timely and safely,” Watts said. “I feel confident that South Carolina has always stepped up to the plate and figured this out, but the resources they typically turn to in other states and in our state are taxed right now.”

One of the other companies that assists in evacuations is LifeLine Ambulance, a company that sends crews from the Midlands. Spokesperson T’Bari Lee said each hurricane season they transport about 300 patients.

“It’ll definitely take at least a third longer,” Lee said about potential evacuations later this year.

One of the top issues many of these companies is facing are increased costs. MedTrust released some of their expense data showing the dramatic toll the pandemic has taken on the prices of every day supplies.

They stated N95 masks went from $0.53 each to more than $5 each in the Spring, a 1,000% increase. Now, each mask is priced at $2.26, a 426% increase from before the pandemic.

A box of gloves increased by 248%, wipes jumped 281%, and PPE kits tripled in price.

Robert Wronski, the MedTrust’s director of government relations, said the increased costs wasn’t the only problem they faced.

“We’ve lost many people who have either aged out of EMS or have just decided to choose another route because of COVID,” Wronski said. “We are at least 22 to 23% understaffed at this time, so that results in longer response times in some cases, longer waits for ambulances to do inter-facility transports, and less people on the ground to handle the inter-facility calls.”

“Obviously, we’ve done a lot to combat that, because that has a horrible effect on the hospital who are our clients,” Watts added. “But, it also has a horrible effect on the patients who need to get from A to B.”

Wronski said some private ambulance companies have had to shut down because of the impacts of the pandemic. Watts added relief funding from the state and federal government would help keep their essential services running.

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