Cass County leaders scramble in wake of Pride Care closure

Published 11:00 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

WAYNE TOWNSHIP — The abrupt closure of Pride Care Ambulance Service has several Cass County communities working on how to address the medical needs of residents.

The Cass/Van Buren County Services Authority hosted an emergency meeting at the Wayne Township Hall Friday night to discuss how to move forward after Pride Care Ambulance Service abruptly closed Friday morning, leaving local officials scrambling to ensure residents have ambulance coverage.

CVBESA is responsible for the coordination and the integration of all activities concerning emergency medical services to the residents and visitors of the City of Dowagiac, Penn Township, Silver Creek Township, Wayne Township, Keeler Township, Volinia Township, LaGrange Township and Jefferson Township.

Pride Care Ambulance was a wholly owned subsidiary of Coloma Emergency Ambulance, Inc. a Michigan corporation. One of the largest ambulance services in Southwest Michigan, Pride Care provided more than 60,000 requests for service including Critical Care, Advanced Life Suport, Basic Life Support and wheelchair transports on an annual basis throughout Kalamazoo, Berrien, Cass, Barry and Van Buren Counties. 

CVBESA members said there is one thing community members should not be concerned about.

“Be assured, if you call 911 requesting an ambulance, you will get an ambulance,” said Jason Pompey with Pokagon Township. “These other agencies are coming into these different territories and are taking calls as needed.”

How we got here

At approximately 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17, Pride Care told CVBESA that Pride Care would not be fulfilling its portion of its contract to provide the emergency medical services within the jurisdiction of the authority. By 7 a.m. Friday, Aug. 17, Pride Care had ceased all EMS operations within the jurisdiction of the authority, in violation of its duties under the contract.

The authority unanimously moved to adopt a breach of contract, pulling Pride Care’s license and ability to operate in Cass County.

In June, Pride Care stopped service in all of Kalamazoo County. Blackmond said CVBESA had been requesting operating plans and proper funding needs from Pride Care and that Pride Care had promised to provide a plan and that finances were in place to cover operating expenses.

“Although this came up suddenly as an emergency, it was essentially that Pride Care was not forthright with the information,” Blackmond said. “All along here, we have attempted to basically solicit an operating plan and funding for that plan so that these municipalities can figure out how we can fund it so that they have  proper emergency service coverage available to the resident.”

“He’s broken a contract and not only that, he’s left our residents certainly susceptible to not getting proper emergency care,” Butts said. All of us are very concerned and very unhappy about that.” 

CVBESA members believe a variety of factors played a role including a competitive employee market and insurance companies taking the majority of available funding.

“All ambulance services have had problems getting enough employees,” Butts said. “It’s an occupation that young people are evidently not interested in, but also it had instances of some of the paramedics being hired away from ambulance services by hospitals to work in their emergency departments. That’s fine for the hospitals but certainly doesn’t help the community. Another one of our concerns is funding that comes both from insurance companies and from Medicare and Medicaid. When ambulances respond, they are restricted to just a small portion of what their bill or fee would normally be and that contributes as well.”

What’s being done

In the short term, other area ambulance services are stepping in to help take Priority 1 calls: Newberg Township Fire and EMS Ambulance, Edwardsburg Ambulance Service, Marcellus Ambulance Service and the Southwest Michigan Community Ambulance Service, which serves the Southern portion of Berrien County as well as half of Pokagon Township.

City of Dowagiac Public Safety Director Steve Grinnewald said that there is a group from Plainwell in Allegan County that is working out a plan to assist with doing transfers out of Ascension Borgess-Lee Hospital.

While Pride Care’s closure will impact response times across the board, officials believe it will have a greater impact on “priority 2” calls (patients with serious illness or injury without immediate life-threatening conditions) compared to “priority 1” (patients with potential life-threatening emergencies) calls.

“If it’s (priority two), it’s going to be a delayed response,” said CVBESA Chairman Frank Butts, representing Wayne Township. “Even though the surrounding ambulance services have agreed to help us, they’re going to be tied up on calls of their own and it’s going to depend on where they’re at. We’re a rural community, it’s not like all of our residents are within a five mile square area. This represents basically 10 municipalities, which is more than half of Cass County.”

Cassopolis Family Care Network CEO Mary Middleton said the network requires ambulances to transport patients if they can’t be safely taken by their family to a hospital or if they can’t drive themselves. 

“This is a very important issue for us,” she said. “There is no hospital in Cassopolis. This is not the first time I’ve heard of mismanagement of an ambulance business.”

Middleton suggested that CVBESA look into adding a “checks and balances” component to any future contract made with an ambulance service.

“That way you get those operational reports so that there’s a financial audit done or an operational audit done, some sort of oversight so that they can’t just put you off then all of a sudden, there’s a surprise because that’s not good business; it’s not how any agency should run that serves public and provides a public service like that. So when you’re doing contracts I would encourage you to put those safeguards in place.”

The discussion moved to what the long-term solutions were for ambulance service in the area. CVBESA plans to go over a variety of options in the coming days and weeks, including passing a millage or creating a special assessment district to fund an ambulance service as well as the possibility of purchasing Pride Care’s assets to be used for an ambulance service. County Administrator Matthew Newton said the county is ready and able to work with CVBESA to identify the best way to move forward with securing ambulance service coverage.

CVBESA has tentatively planned a follow-up meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Wayne Township Hall.

“I think we need to explore the possibility of a county-wide millage that would share revenue equally amongst the services depending on population,” Butts said. “I think that might make it a little more equitable for us to either expand some of these new services that are here with more ambulances and more personnel, or the possibility of an outside ambulance service that we might be able to support financially. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we need help from the county. More than half of the county is affected by this.”