Our Opinion: Ambulance services advance consolidation
Village Ambulance, Williamstown's professional ambulance service, was experiencing financial woes thanks to a poorly considered wrinkle in federal law that only reimburses ambulance fees for those beneath a certain income threshold. Those above the threshold can still find it difficult or impossible to pay the fees, thereby causing them to stiff the vital service after they've made use of it, particularly if their insurance deductibles won't cover it. In other words, Williamstown is, paradoxically, too well-off to keep its ambulance service solvent.
North Adams Ambulance Service, on the other hand, is viable and its service area already regional, in that it covers other towns in the Northern Berkshires, Franklin County and Vermont. It also, like Williamstown, has an excellent response time record. A merger between the two — technically effected on January 1 of this year — made so much sense that the usual voices of parochialism were stilled.
The Eagle has long argued that the future of Berkshire County's public services — including education, fire and rescue, ambulance and law enforcement — lies in regionalization wherever possible. Economies of scale, elimination of redundancy and efficient use of existing equipment and greater collective purchasing power argue in favor of consolidation. The arguments against it tend to be based more on emotion than common sense — among them a reluctance to "give up" the independence of a municipal service that is woven into the culture of a town, or a fear that a multi-jurisdictional entity won't be as responsive.
Chances are that neither Williamstown nor North Adams will notice any difference in their ambulance services; if anything, response times are likely to improve because the newly-merged company's expanded size will enable more efficient deployment of assets where they are needed. In addition, more backup crews will be available for making good on mutual aid agreements, leading to less money wasted on down-time while crews await the next call.
Differences in corporate culture as well as methodologies can hamstring such a move, but in the two-plus months since the merger, the companies have been cooperating to keep their primary goal in mind: whatever works best for patient welfare. Win Steubner, a doctor and member of the new company's board of directors, says morale among employees is high, and that even though the past few months have been busy, service has not suffered.
The merged company is going to need a new name, branding and new uniforms, and in a further show of cooperation, the town of Williamstown and Williams College, both of which benefit from the merger, have agreed to contribute $200,000 to help in that process.
Ultimately, the North Adams-Village merger could serve as a model for other Berkshires ambulance organizations that are seeking the same economic and administrative streamlining in order to get more bang for the client buck. As important is the proof it provides to individual taxpayers that giving up a town's autonomy over a vital service does not necessarily result in its erosion, and can in fact improve it.
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