Barrow County officials are drawing closer toward an agreement where Northeast Georgia Health System would handle all ambulance transports in the county starting in July.

It’s the latest step in a service-provider agreement between the two parties as county emergency services leaders have said in recent years the department continues to struggle with finding qualified paramedics. The issue is part of a nationwide trend as paramedics have higher-paying jobs, more flexible hours and a wider range of work opportunities available, which officials say has poised challenges to traditional EMS models.

“It’s a sustainability issue,” Barrow County Emergency Services chief Alan Shuman said.

Under a draft agreement presented to the county board of commissioners during its annual planning retreat last week, NGHS would operate all of the county’s ambulances and handle transports to and from Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow and other area hospitals at an annual cost to the county just shy of $2.4 million.

Four of the ambulances would be staffed 24/7, while two more would be staffed during peak 12-hour periods, and NGHS would have two reserve ambulances available as well, Shuman said. Hospital paramedics and the ambulances would continue to be housed at BCES stations to cut down on costs of additional housing, he said.

The new agreement, if approved by the BOC as part of the crafting of a county budget for Fiscal Year 2022, would also roll in the existing arrangements between the two parties, where NGHS houses an ambulance at Northeast Georgia Medical Center-Barrow in Winder and where the hospital system operates one out of a county station in Auburn.

“When you need an ambulance, there’s going to be an ambulance,” Chad Hatfield, president of NGMC Barrow and NGHS regional vice president for hospital operations, told the board. “We will reevaluate the agreement at the end of every year because this is new to us, too. We want to make sure we’re getting the best value out of this. We’re not going into this with the intention of making a ton of money. We want to be able to continue to build and expand in Barrow County, and this is really the next step.”

The difference in the cost of the agreement to the county and what the EMS budget would otherwise be without it would be negligible in FY22, officials said. But Deputy Chief Heath Williams said the county will save money on capital expenses in the long run and that citizens should ultimately receive better overall service as a result of the switch. Williams said that with NGHS taking over ambulance transports, BCES would retain another 42 employees by reassigning them to fire/rescue trucks to assist in ambulance responses.

Shuman said 80 percent of the calls the department currently responds to in a county with a fast-growing population are some type of medical emergency, which he said sometimes ties up staffers when they may be needed elsewhere.

BCES will continue to respond to calls and retain the county EMS license to ensure NGHS responds to incidents at adequate levels, Shuman said.

“We want to make sure we’ve got (the agreement) to where they’re responding to calls in a timeframe we establish,” BOC chairman Pat Graham said.

Moving all of the 42 employees would increase the county’s fire fund budget from roughly $5.2 million this fiscal year to a little over $7 million in FY22, Williams said.

BOC members were generally in favor of the outlines of the agreement last week and BCES officials are planning additional discussions with the board as the county moves toward eventual adoption of an FY22 budget in June.

“I see a lot of benefits to the citizens with this,” commissioner Rolando Alvarez said.

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