The little ambulance company that could

February 4, 2010
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Rockford Ambulance is one of only 35 nonprofit advanced emergency medical services in the state, and most likely the only one in Michigan that offers dancing lessons.

The first responder got its start as the North Kent Ambulance Service in 1968, back when its staff solely consisted of volunteers. Two years later, it was licensed to provide basic life support service, and it earned its advanced license four years after that in 1974.

But the really big event came 20 years later in 1994 when Rockford Ambulance received full accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services. It became the nation’s first organization to earn that professional honor with fewer than 5,000 transports on its résumé.

“We were the first ambulance service under 5,000 calls to be accredited. We were the 19th or 20th overall,” said Roger Morgan, CEO of Rockford Ambulance.

“I think the accreditation was huge because it’s like going through a big audit, and it showed us how important structure is and policies and procedures. It was like shooting for the gold standard, and that accreditation is the gold standard in the ambulance industry. And we’ve been re-accredited ever since,” he added.

Today, Rockford has 10 ambulances, four wheelchair vans and 67 employees. But nothing makes Morgan happier than telling people that he hasn’t laid off one worker throughout the state’s lengthy economic downturn.

“I’m very proud that I haven’t had to lay anyone off and we’re still going strong,” said Morgan, who has directed the business since 1984.

Morgan, also the Kent County Commission chairman who represents the county’s 4th District, said the ambulance business has its challenges. Collections and reimbursements after providing services are the biggest trials, closely followed by trying to figure out what service is eligible for which insurance claim. “When we take a person to a hospital, some of that may not be eligible under a program,” he said.

Morgan said most reimbursements from private insurance policies cover Rockford’s cost for a transport. But Medicare and Medicaid don’t, unless membership revenue from its Care Plan is thrown into the equation to fill the gap. The Care Plan fee is $39 for a full year, a payment that prevents members from being charged for out-of-pocket costs. He said the reimbursements from private insurers have helped to subsidize the public payments.

The cost for a hospital run, when medications are given, is $560, and $445 for a call that doesn’t include medications. Mileage is $9 a mile. Medicare, though, only pays Rockford $384 for the intervention run that costs the business $560.

“Reimbursements have been ratcheted down over the last several years and our expenses keep going up,” he said. “So that’s always a challenge.”

Rockford Ambulance did 212 wheelchair-van runs in October, mostly taking people to doctors’ appointments, and 523 ambulance transports. Both numbers represent an average month, but are way higher than in years past. “When I first got to Rockford in 1984, we did 811 for the whole year,” he said.

Morgan also said his service had 916 requests for ambulance runs in October, so that meant 393 calls that were answered but weren’t billed, because Rockford doesn’t charge if someone isn’t taken to a hospital. He said sometimes people find other ways to get to a hospital or simply feel better after making an emergency call and decide not to go.

“We don’t charge for that,” he said.

“We do a $40 minimum charge if we give dextrose or something to a diabetic, but that’s just for the drug charge. All the lift assists that we do — and we do quite a few of those — are free.”

There are 187 advanced emergency medical services in Michigan; 35 are community-based nonprofits like Rockford Ambulance. Fire departments operate 74, hospitals own 13, public safety units have 10, private companies own 25, and another 30 are operated by various organizations.

The main office for Rockford Ambulance is at 8450 Shaner Ave. in Rockford. The service has six substations in northern and eastern Kent County that stretch from Tyrone Township in the northeast to Lowell Township on the eastern county line. Morgan said Rockford will begin building a new substation on Belding Road in Grattan Township this summer. Rockford services roughly 55 percent of Kent County.

“It’s just a small little company,” he said.

But this small company has a lot of rhythm, courtesy of Andy Andresen and Sue Gray. Andresen is a medic with the firm who loves to teach ballroom dancing. So he and Gray decided to offer free dance lessons through a program they created called “Dance Your Troubles Away.” The lessons are given in the ambulance company’s community room.

“We were looking for like 25 people to sign up and we got 70 to sign up — even one of our board members signed up,” said Morgan. “The response was so positive, we’ve had to break it into two sessions.”  HQ

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