Panel: Voters should decide ambulance issue

MILFORD – With cost, not service, driving their consideration, a volunteer committee has recommended that voters be asked whether Milford should turn its town-owned ambulance service over to a private company.

Selectmen are considering the issue, details of which were presented Monday evening. It is not clear whether they will put the proposal on the warrant for Town Meeting.

A petitioned warrant article with the opposite point of view – keeping the town-owned Milford Ambulance Service – has already been presented and will almost certainly be on the ballot.

“We’re getting to a point where the costs need to be addressed,” said former Selectman Peter Leishman, who chaired the committee, in presenting the group’s report to the Board of Selectmen on Monday. “Voters should have an opportunity to vote on this.”

He acknowledged that the idea of doing away with the town-based service would be controversial.

Although Monday’s selectmen’s meeting was packed, with a number of ambulance volunteers and staffers in the crowd, few comments were given.

One person who spoke was Richard Tortorelli, Milford’s former fire chief. He helped create the ambulance service in 1974 after state law forced communities to give up the dependence on funeral-home ambulances that had long been the norm.

“If you privatize . . . you will lose control of the professionalism and quality of service we are used to,” he warned.

Leishman repeatedly complimented the current town-supported ambulance service and operates out of the basement of Town Hall. He said the proposal includes a review board, appointed by the selectmen, to look at rates and service.

“I know that keeping local control is important to people,” he said.

Under the proposal supported by the Ambulance Study Committee, Rockingham Ambulance would take over the town’s two ambulances and house them in an unspecified location within town.

The cost to Milford for coverage would be $210,000 the first year, declining to $10,500 by the fifth and subsequent years. This is compared to an expected cost for the Milford Ambulance Service this year of about $350,000, depending on the amount of fees it receives.

There would be no cost to Milford for housing the ambulances, which presumably would free up the current ambulance space in the basement of Town Hall.

Rockingham is owned by St. Joseph Hospital, which often keeps an ambulance at its Milford Medical Center on Nashua Street.

Rockingham’s proposed fee schedule for patients is the Medicare reimbursement plus 5 percent – roughly equivalent to the current service fees, although less in some situations and more in others.

The proposal is the more expensive of Rockingham’s two proposals because it includes two paramedics in town on two ambulances, 24 hours a day, but it was supported by a 5-0 vote, with one abstention and two committee members not present.

Currently, the town’s two ambulances have one paramedic in Town Hall 24 hours a day, and a second paramedic there on days and evenings.

However, Service Director Eric Schelberg noted, the town’s service also has a large number of on-call emergency medical technicians and paramedics who could come to a major emergency, whereas Rockingham would have only four people working in town.

The question of whether Milford’s ambulance service should go private first seriously came up a year ago, when an approximate price tag of $1.7 million was floated on building a new ambulance facility.

The Ambulance Study Committee has spent seven months looking at the matter. It eventually received five options from two private companies, Care Plus and Rockingham Ambulance.

Rockingham has contracted with Nashua since 1979, with Manchester since 1993 and with Candia since 2001. Its Nashua operation is about five times as busy as Milford’s service, which performs roughly 1,000 emergency calls a year.