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On solid ground


After ten years, and some obstacles, Lapeer EMS is going strong



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August 01, 2007
You might say it's a medical milestone.

Lapeer County Emergency Medical Services reached a milestone last month with July 1 marking its 10th year of service to county residents.

Lapeer EMS is currently staffed by about 60 full-time and part-time professionals, and bolstered by a small number of volunteers.

During its genesis, however, the agency relied heavily on volunteers and just a handful of paid individuals.

The origin of Lapeer EMS came in July 1997, when Lapeer Ambulance Service, Imlay City Ambulance and North Branch Area Ambulance merged.

Although each of the individual ambulance services was capable of providing quick, professional medical response to their respective constituents, each was beset with serious financial problems.

The problems stemmed from low overall call volume, slow reimbursement from insurance companies and patients, and having to bite the bullet on calls involving uninsured parties.

It was believed at the time that combining the three services would be more efficient, cost-effective and strengthen the overall quality of service for customers.

After a series of meetings, lengthy discussions and careful analysis, a deal was eventually struck. Hence, the creation of Lapeer County EMS.

Because of continued financial strain, however, it was finally decided the ambulance service would need financial support to survive.

About three years ago, apparently realizing the value of sustaining a countywide ambulance service, the member municipalities approved a $6 per capita assessment to be used for employee wages, benefits and equipment.

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Lapeer EMS Director Galland Burnham takes keys to new rig from Scott Schalow of Mercy Sales and Service as EMS treasurer Lloyd Broecker and Vice Chair Eldon Card help celebrate the moment.

Since approval of the assessment, which raises about $208,000 annually, the service has essentially become self-sufficient, says Galland Burnham, Lapeer EMS executive director.

At the same time, says Burnham, the service has had the money to purchase new defibrillators, replace aging ambulances and enhance employee wages and benefit packages.

Burnham equates providing reasonable wages for employees as one of the keys to the agency's new-found stability.

"Taking care of our employees is important," says Burnham. "They're well-trained, good at their jobs and very good people. They deserve it."

With a current annual budget of about $2.3 million, Burnham has witnessed the agency's early struggles and its shift toward stability. He believes the ambulance service has finally reached the point of proving its legitimacy and value to the community.

As evidence, he says, the Lapeer EMS Board was recently able to purchase two more 2006 ambulances, along with laptop computers, additional defibrillators and other needed equipment.

Of possibly greater importance to local municipalities, last month the Board was able to cut its annual assessments by half, from $6 per capita to $3 per capita.

Financial challenges remain

"We're in much better shape than we were a few years ago," says Burnham, "but it's still an uphill battle every day."

Alluding to nearly $500,000 in unpaid bills for services rendered, he hopes residents don't view the service as a free ride.

"We still face issues with third-party payers," says Burnham. "There are a lot of accounts that are unpaid that we are continually trying to collect on."

Burnham stresses that unpaid bills or lack of insurance are never a factor when it comes to providing ambulance service and emergency care to area residents.

"We cannot refuse to treat people or not take them to the hospital," he says. "We will not deny them service because they don't have insurance or are not able to pay."

Although accessibility to EMS services is considered a given by most residents, Burnham fears that many still take the service for granted.

"Seemingly a lot of people think we can do this for nothing," he says. "We are not just ambulance drivers anymore. We are trained EMTs and paramedics."

Burnham adds that the time and costs of training for any of the four EMT levels are significant, a fact sometimes lost on average citizens.

"EMS training typically takes about two years and it can cost as much as $10,000 out-of-pocket for classes and materials," he explains. "This is obviously a necessary service. But ironically, there are people who work at fast-food restaurants that are paid more than our EMTs. That's not meant to discredit anyone else. But we're out saving lives."

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