County agrees to make larger EMS payouts to keep transports going

First Byline: 
David Purtell - Staff Writer

Barnwell County doesn't own the county's hospital anymore, but taxpayers will continue to help cover the cost of healthcare in the county until 2017.
During council's regular meeting March 11, Southern Palmetto Hospital CEO Mary Valliant and Resurgence Management Company CEO Phil Eastman - whose company owns the hospital - asked the county to reimburse the cost of EMS service in the county beyond what was already agreed to. The discussion took place in closed session, and afterward council voted to pay the hospital $950,000 a year for three years to cover the cost of the county's ambulance service.
The change comes after the current EMS service, Williston Rescue Squad, announced it will be closing March 31 due to financial difficulties. The hospital has contracted with Anderson-based MedShore Ambulance Service to begin operations April 1.
When the county sold the hospital in June 2013, the asset purchase agreement obligated the county to subsidize the hospital's operating costs for three years after the sale date - the set amount was $450,000 a year. The county also agreed to reimburse the cost of EMS service, paying the total amount the first two years after the sale and then either 25 percent of the total cost or $225,000 - whichever is less - for years three, four and five.
But when the hospital was sold, the new owners didn't start paying for ambulance service right away. Instead, the county renewed its contract with WRS and has been paying $77,000 a month since July. The last payment to WRS is this month. At the meeting, council voted to pay the full amount of the new EMS contract for the next three years beginning in April and then end all payments to the hospital.
The county will reimburse the hospital for the MedShore contract to the tune of $79,000 a month. Those payments will run for 36 months - totaling $2.85 million. Add that to the subsidy the county will pay and it totals $4.2 million in payments to the hospital when all is said and done.
Regarding the EMS reimbursement, if one takes into account county payments to WRS since the hospital was sold, it adds up to an additional $1.2 million for overall payments for EMS under the new agreement.
Under the original agreement, if the hospital had started its contract with MedShore in July 2013 the difference would be $974,000 - the figure councilmember Keith Sloan, the chairman of county council's finance committee, used.
Either way you look at it, the county is paying more money under the new agreement.
MedShore wanted nothing less than a three-year deal, Sloan and council chairman Freddie Houston said, which was part of the reason why the hospital was asking for more assistance from the county.
Sloan said the hospital was put in a difficult situation when WRS announced it is shutting down operations. He said the agreement is "fair' and ensures there is no interruption in ambulance service for the county. In three years, he said, the county will be freed from its obligations to the hospital - a year earlier than under the original agreement.
When the hospital was sold, RMC paid $1.4 million to the hospital's bankruptcy trustee to help pay off debts. The county did not receive any money from the sale since the hospital was its own entity and not part of the county's budget.
Before the hospital was sold, county council members appointed themselves to the hospital board in order to initiate the bankruptcy process and sell the hospital. Their argument was that the hospital was a financial black hole for the county. It was losing money and couldn't pay its debts. With the hospital sold, the property tax funds normally set aside for the hospital will come into the county's coffers after all the hospital's debts are paid.