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KANAWHA COUNTY, W. Va. Hundreds of low-income Kanawha County residents who have relied on the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority for a free ride to the doctor's office will have to find alternative transportation after June 30.
The ambulance authority is ending its door-to-door service after seven years. The agency wants to cut costs and concentrate on responding to emergencies.
The ambulance authority has found rides for about half of its clients who use the shuttle service for routine doctor visits, agency spokesman Mike Jarrett said Monday. That leaves about 250 of the county's most vulnerable residents - low-income, the elderly and nursing home patients - still searching for a ride to a doctor's office or medical clinic.
For some, like kidney dialysis patients, it's a matter of life and death.
"The worry is that people will fall through the cracks," said the Rev. Dennis Sparks, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, an agency working with the ambulance authority to help people transportation. "The question is will everybody who needs transportation on July 1 have it? We hope and pray on this one."
Last year, ambulance authority vans shuttled more than 500 people and made 11,000 round trips. Nearly all patients were insured through Medicaid, the government's health plan for the poor.
Medicaid reimbursed the ambulance authority at a rate of $9 per trip, far below the agency's cost to provide the service, Jarrett said. The agency lost about $230,000 last year on the trips.
"We can no longer serve as a bus and taxi service," Jarrett said. "We can't afford to do it."
Ambulance authority chaplains have been meeting with local church and nonprofit groups in recent weeks. The ambulance agency plans to give away the dozen vans it uses to transport people, provided the churches and nonprofits agree to provide rides for patients.
Ambulance authority members voted last month to discontinue all nonessential services.
The cuts will provide salary hikes and additional training for paramedics. Ambulance officials have complained that emergency personnel make up to $7,000 a year more in neighboring counties, and that Kanawha County paramedics are leaving to work in the smaller counties.
"I knew we had to stand up and make a tough call," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who also serves on the ambulance authority's board. "I hope the safety net won't have too many holes in it, but I'm not going to sit here and say this decision won't have any consequences."
The ambulance authority has asked Kanawha Valley Senior Services and the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority for help. Ambulance officials also hope that local for-profit nursing homes will buy vans to transport their residents.
KRT already runs a curbside mini-bus service for 3,000 disabled residents in the county. Bus agency officials say it would be difficult to take on more people.
"We're not a medical transportation company," said Doug Hartley, KRT's assistant general manager. "Some of these people will end up using our service, but we do not have the capacity to take on all of those clients."
Jarrett said people who are unable to sit upright and ride in a normal vehicle still would be picked up by the ambulance authority and taken to the doctor. They would be shuttled in an ambulance, not a van, he said.