Brattleboro’s municipal government and the town’s nearly 60-year nonprofit emergency medical service provider are on course to part ways because of an escalating contract dispute.
Newly hired Town Manager Yoshi Manale announced this week that Rescue Inc. would stop responding to Brattleboro calls as of July 1, leading his office to draft a transition plan to hire a private ambulance company until the local fire department can secure enough employees and equipment to take over.
“After a careful internal analysis,” Manale said in a statement, “I felt that not only can (the Brattleboro Fire Department) provide a high level of service after a year of transition, but it also makes financial sense.”
But shortly after the town issued a press release, Rescue Chief of Operations Drew Hazelton shared a letter he sent Manale revealing a rift between municipal leaders and the EMS provider that covers more than a dozen communities in southern Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire.
Before former Town Manager Peter Elwell’s recent retirement, Rescue believed it was set to continue serving Brattleboro as outlined at the provider’s 2021 annual meeting.
“The system is working,” Elwell said publicly at the September session aired and archived on Brattleboro Community TV.
But Hazelton received a different response after the new town manager began this January.
“You stated,” Hazelton wrote Manale, “that you were only willing to allow Rescue to continue providing service to the town without paying for those services at all, and that any shortfall should be shifted to the other communities that we serve.”
Rescue’s chief of operations said he was told that Brattleboro, which currently pays the provider $285,000 a year, subsidizes the surrounding area by dispatching its firefighters to mutual aid calls.
“The fact that the fire department responds to other towns in our county is irrelevant to the fundamental issue here — paying for services the town receives,” Hazelton wrote Manale.
Municipal leaders, in response, released their follow-up letter to Rescue contesting those claims.
“At no time has the town of Brattleboro suggested we were ending the contract,” they wrote. “In fact, we have only asked Rescue Inc. to provide the town with justification for its assessment of $285,000 a year.”
The town estimates the provider annually reaps about $865,000 in public and private insurance reimbursement from Brattleboro residents, adding up to a yearly local haul of $1.15 million.
“We inquired why Rescue Inc.’s calls for service fees are amongst the highest in the state,” the letter continued. “The Selectboard and town manager’s responsibility is to ensure that Brattleboro residents have the best services at the most reasonable cost.”
Under the transition plan set to start in two and a half months, Brattleboro would sign a one-year agreement with Golden Cross Ambulance of Claremont, New Hampshire, to house and staff two vehicles at the town fire station. The municipality then would work to obtain a pair of its own ambulances and enough employees and equipment to operate them.
“This municipal fire/EMS model is the most efficient and effective standard practice for the rapid delivery of medical care,” the town said in a statement. “It is currently being utilized in a highly successful manner by five of the six Vermont municipalities larger than Brattleboro,” which is the state’s seventh most populous community.
Manale used Rescue’s 2019 IRS filing to estimate the municipality could receive a $500,000 to $700,000 net gain in revenue annually through EMS insurance reimbursement.
“We plan to propose that this additional revenue be invested in quality-of-life improvements for the people of Brattleboro,” the town manager said.
But the plan doesn’t detail the so-far-unpublicized costs of obtaining ambulances, additional employees and equipment and related tasks ranging from dispatch to billing, all of which must be approved at a Town Meeting.
It also doesn’t address a statewide shortage of crisis responders. The town of Williston, for example, made national news last fall when local firefighters responding to an EMS request couldn’t find on-call replacements, leaving their station empty for almost an hour.
“The call people just aren’t there,” Brattleboro Fire Chief Leonard Howard told VTDigger at the time.
The Brattleboro Fire Department currently responds to about 1,400 EMS calls a year — at least half of the community’s total count in 2021.
In his letter to the town, Hazelton opposed any fire department plans to expand its emergency medical services because of “years of poor patient turnover, gender discrimination, verbal abuse and general lack of cooperation by certain members.”
“It is my opinion that they lack the necessary oversight to provide clinically appropriate care to the citizens of Brattleboro,” Hazelton wrote. “The change would also likely cause unnecessary transport delays and an overall reduction in the entire system’s performance.”
Municipal leaders refuted the accusations.
“After an extensive internal investigation by our Human Resources department, we found this to be without merit,” Manale and newly elected Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow wrote in a letter to Hazelton.
They also said it was a “conflict of interest” for Hazelton — who is chair of the Vermont EMS District 13 Board — to offer an official opinion about fire department plans that take the place of Rescue.
The town is set to host three public forums on the issue April 18 at 6 p.m. and April 23 at 1 p.m., both at the fire station, and April 26 at 6 p.m. at Brooks Memorial Library.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incomplete information about cost-splitting between the town government and Rescue Inc.