Estey Steps Down at WRVA;

Front Page / Aug. 24, 2006 12:00am EDT

Board Tackles Financial Woes
By Sandy Cooch
Estey Steps Down at WRVA;

Estey Steps Down at WRVA;

Board Tackles Financial Woes

By Sandy Cooch

After eight years of shepherding the White River Valley Ambulance into "definitely one of the best services in the state," WRVA’s administrator Amy Estey is stepping down.

"I feel really good about what has been done here and what has evolved," Estey said this week. "I leave it (WRVA) at a great time."

Under Estey’s leadership, WRVA —which had no paramedics on staff when she first arrived —became a fully licensed, round-the-clock paramedic service.

Other advances include a switch to a much improved communications system that has eliminated the problem of "dead spots" in the service’s eight-town region.

However, WRVA is also struggling financially—squeezed between revenue shortfalls and some extraordinary expenditures, according to Jocelyn Stohl, chair of the WRVA board of directors.

Stohl indicated this week that the WRVA board is in the midst of a major analysis of WRVA finances and will probably wait until it finishes that project before hiring a new director.

"I really think it’s safe to say this is a financial crisis we cannot ignore," she said.

Stohl noted income shortfalls are nothing new: "It’s the nature of the business. The bulk of our calls are paid through Medicare and Medicaid, and they never have and never will reimburse adequately to the emergency services."

"Part of the equation," Stohl added, "is that so many Vermonters still don’t have health insurance."

Also, Stohl noted that WRVA "can’t turn away from 911 calls," a number of which end up being "no transports" (see side article), and that means the ambulance has no one to bill for the outing.

"This service is a billing service and we attempt to get every single penny we can," Stohl emphasized.

However, since reimbursements do not cover all costs, WRVA has to look to its eight member towns to make up the difference, Stohl said.

"On that side, we try to keep increases down," she added.

In the last year or so, "some things have helped to accelerate" WRVA’s cash problems, according to Stohl.

One was the $24,000 communications upgrade.

"We went onto microwave," explained Stohl.

The previous system had "just too many dead places," she said.

Then, the leach field at WRVA’s headquarters on Route 12 in Bethel unexpectedly failed in February, and costs and solutions for that are still being sorted out.

Initial estimates were low, according to Estey, and subsequent ones came in alarmingly high.

At that point, some WRVA board members (there is one for each member town) went to their selectboards to report that WRVA might need to request extra funds from towns.

Since then, estimates have settled "in the middle," said Estey. "It’s not as dire as we thought."

WRVA is now looking at short-term borrowing to cover costs, she said.

Other Approaches

In its overall review of finances, the WRVA board is looking at how other ambulance services assess member towns.

Stohl noted that the service based in Woodstock has a "guaranteed income" because member towns are required to pick up the difference when reimbursements don’t cover billing costs.

"We don’t have that piece—we go per capita," she explained.

Some of WRVA’s problems are demographic. Like WRVA, the ambulance service in the Rutland area assesses its member towns on a per-capita basis, Stohl said, but it works better there, because costs are spread out over a much larger population.

Stohl said that board members are looking at ways to save money, as well as examining "alternatives for funding" in the next year.

Holding off on hiring a new administrator for a few months is one of the ways the board can save money, she indicated. In the interim, a few board members "will be pitching in" and contributing extra volunteer hours, she indicated.

The board anticipates having a new administrator in place by October, Stohl said.

Stohl this week expressed praise and thanks to Estey, who had advised the board early on that she planned to resign this year.

"She has been an outstanding administrator for this ambulance service," Stohl said, adding that when Estey was hired, she had pledged to stay on for five years.

"We have been very fortunate to get three (years) more. She has done a wonderful job and we are sorry to see her go."

For her part, Estey this week sang the praises of the "wonderful people" she has worked with during her tenure here.

"It’s just time for me to do something different," Estey noted, adding that part of her decision stemmed from the fact that her husband retired from his job earlier this year.

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