Monday, May 20, 2013
By Rachel Ohm firstname.lastname@example.org
BINGHAM — Getting to this small town along the Kennebec River can take some time. About 23 miles north of Skowhegan, it is a half-hour drive up U.S. Route 201, winding along the river on a road other drivers share with logging trucks.
James Baldwin, a paramedic, and Doraine "Dodie" Mathieu, an emergency medical technician, both with the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance Service, stand next to an ambulance at the service's Bingham office Friday.
Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
The high school has 66 students, and there are just two restaurants. The dental clinic opened its first office apart from the town health center in October.
The town also is the base for the Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance service, which attends to people in six towns and 11 unorganized townships in northern Somerset County. As in many rural areas in Maine, services such as the ambulance are shared among communities.
Trying to figure out how to pay for shared services can be a challenge in rural communities, and there may be no best way to do it. While facing rising costs, the ambulance service here is considering changing the way it is paid in the communities it serves. Yet because the area's population is so small and spread out, the cost of services is higher than in other local districts. In those areas, services can be shared at lower costs to taxpayers or provided by hospitals or private companies.
Rural areas, high costs
Communities that use the Upper Kennebec Valley service pay based on their population, with residents in Bingham paying about half the money collected. Some think the way costs are shared is unfair because Bingham has a nursing home, which accounts for many of the calls, and other areas with smaller populations rely on the ambulance service more heavily during tourism seasons.
In Bingham, residents recently voted down a request from the ambulance service for $69,990, about 40 percent of the service's total budget, for 2013. Instead, Bingham voters opted during the annual Town Meeting to give $35,000.
As a result, the service has only enough money to operate through June, said Marlene Merrill, president of Upper Kennebec Valley Ambulance's board of directors.
Bingham's First Selectman Steve Steward said: "It needs to be fairer. They provide a good service, but I think many people feel the upper river towns are not contributing what they should be to the cost."
In 2012, the service made 253 calls in Bingham, but 97 of those came from Somerset Rehabilitation & Living Center, said Tim Pomelow, the service's executive director.
"They incorporate that number into Bingham's cost, but there are people from everywhere in that nursing home," Steward said.
Other towns also rely on the service more heavily during tourism seasons, he said.
"About 85 percent of properties upriver are camps. They aren't included in the population, but they still use the service," he said.
Steward said the area needs the service and wants to keep it, but the cost is too high.
In 2012, Bingham contributed $88,544 to the service's annual budget of $214,627, as well as an extra $12,000 to help with financial troubles the service was having.
Steward said a special town meeting was held to approve giving the additional $12,000 to the service, which ran out of money at the end of 2011.
"They were on the verge of collapse and we had to bail them out," he said.
Merrill said operating costs have increased, primarily because of the prices of fuel, equipment and insurance.
The service added 24-hour paramedic coverage in August. According to Pomelow, paramedics were on duty about 80 percent of the time before. The new staff includes one critical-care paramedic, the highest level of care available; three other paramedics; and three emergency medical technicians, he said.
"People don't understand that it costs money to have these things. Last year there were some days when there were just no paramedics on duty. Now there is someone there every day," Merrill said.
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