HOULTON, Maine — Several central and northern Aroostook County communities could soon face massive increases in the cost of contracts for ambulance services, as the latest areas in Maine to experience problems providing EMS coverage.
The Aroostook County commissioners on Tuesday discussed proposed increases and contract changes offered through Caribou Region Ambulance Services, and in particular how the new plans would affect the county budget and reliability of coverage in the Unorganized Territory, which the commissioners oversee.
Paul Bernier, community service director for Aroostook County, told commissioners that Caribou’s proposed rate increase for ambulance coverage for the unorganized townships — particularly Connor Township — would have a devastating impact on the county’s budget.
“The city of Caribou, at the eleventh hour right at the end of December, sent us a letter stating they were looking at their ambulance and fire protection services costs,” Bernier said. “The end result was certainly not well received by us or the other communities.”
Bernier said the city of Caribou wants to change the way it charges for contracted services of ambulance protection with a new formula to be determined solely based on population. The new fee would be $100 per person.
If this new fee system goes forward, Bernier said it would have a tremendous impact on what small towns will be charged for ambulance coverage, with some communities seeing as much as a two or three mill increase to their property tax rates.
Caribou provides ambulance coverage for Connor Township, Woodland, New Sweden, Lake Township, Westmanland, Perham, Stockholm and half of the towns of Wade and Washburn. Several of those communities fall under the jurisdiction of the county commissioners as they are in the Unorganized Territory.
“For example, our contract for Connor last year was $5,244,” Bernier said. “The population of Connor is about 415, so we would be looking at a fee of $41,500. My budget certainly can’t handle that [increase].”
Caribou’s contracts run from January to December, while the county’s budget runs from July 1 to June 30, further complicating the process.
The county explored the possibility of contracting with a different ambulance department for coverage for Connor and initially had fruitful discussions with Van Buren, which would be just a 15-minute response time. Those talks broke down earlier this week.
A second option with Caribou would charge a flat fee of $500 per call. For Connor, the average number of calls over the past three years was 28, which would cost the county $14,000 for this community.
But there is no guarantee that an ambulance would be available, and the county would have to do all of its own billing to insurance companies for reimbursement.
“I am very concerned about this,” Commissioner Norm Fournier said. “If we go with the $500 route, they don’t guarantee service.”
Bernier explained that if the county chose the $500 per call option and no ambulances were available at the Caribou station, additional crews would not be called in to respond. A call would then need to be put out to the next closest ambulance department for coverage until an ambulance could be located.
County Administrator Ryan Pelletier suggested the board table any action on the ambulance contracts for a couple of weeks to see what the neighboring communities of Washburn, Woodland and Perham decide.
Those communities will hold public meetings in the coming weeks to discuss this topic, Pelletier said.
He suggested the board could hold a special meeting near the end of January to finalize the contract, if necessary. The board has a Jan. 31 deadline with Caribou to decide.