Mercy Flight says it’s ready to take reins from COVA in central Orleans, keeping COVA staff

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 October 2022 at 9:54 am

7 towns close to reaching agreement with Monroe Ambulance

Photos by Tom Rivers: Mercy Flight and COVA officials tell the Albion Village Board the two organizations have reached an agreement for Mercy Flight to take over COVA, which could be as early as next week. Pictured form left include Aaron MacKenzie of COVA; Scott Wooton, vice president of Mercy Flight EMS; Laurie Schwab, chief operations officer for COVA; and Margaret Ferrentino, president of Mercy Flight EMS.

ALBION – COVA has reached an agreement with Mercy Flight EMS to take over as the main ambulance provider in central Orleans County, a deal where Mercy Flight will retain COVA’s 44 employees, work out of the COVA base on South Main Street in Albion and keep two ambulances in service.

However, the four towns in central Orleans – Albion, Barre, Carlton and Gaines – are close to signing a deal with Monroe Ambulance. Monroe currently is the main ambulance provider on the eastern end of the county in the towns of Clarendon, Murray and Kendall. The four central towns are negotiating with Monroe as part of a seven-town agreement.

That deal hasn’t been signed yet, but is expected in the next two weeks.

Mercy Flight officials met with COVA employees on Wednesday evening and stated their commitment to keep the workers. That was a big selling point for Aaron MacKenzie, a COVA paramedic.

COVA ambulance will be closing soon after 43 years, and COVA officials would like to see Mercy Flight EMS take over the central Orleans area, working out of the COVA base on South Main Street in Albion.

“With Mercy Flight we can keep those employees who are passionate in serving this community,” MacKenzie said.

The Mercy Flight deal was announced during Wednesday’s evening Albion Village Board meeting. The COVA board voted Wednesday to reach a memorandum of understanding with Mercy Flight to assume the COVA service area. Mercy Flight said it could start next week.

The MOU would allow Mercy Flight to use COVA’s certificate of need on a temporary basis while working to get the CON from the state Department of Health. That CON is needed to be a primary ambulance provider in the area. Mercy Flight, which has a base in Batavia, has been doing mutual aid calls in central Orleans for several years.

But the town supervisors in the four central towns could sign a contract with Monroe Ambulance to be the main ambulance provider. Sean Pogue, the Barre town supervisor, said this morning he would be open to sitting down with Mercy Flight to hear their plan for serving the area.

He said Monroe has committed to two ambulances in the seven-town block of eastern and central Orleans, and could bring in other resources during a high-volume time by drawing from staff and ambulances in Monroe County.

Monroe officials told Pogue and the town leaders it would need 90 days to ramp up the service and set up a base in Orleans County. However, Monroe could increase its service in Orleans, including the central towns, sooner.

Pogue said the town leaders had been viewing Monroe as the lone option to take over if COVA ended its service. He would be willing to talk with Mercy Flight officials “ASAP” to consider their proposal for providing service.

“The bottom line is we are going to need an ambulance service,” Pogue said today. “I’m going to need it someday and I want it 10 minutes away not 45 minutes.”

Pogue also wants to see the ambulance provider keep as many COVA staff as possible.

Mercy Flight EMS responds to a call in Albion on Oct. 11. The organization has been providing mutual aid for several years.

The Albion Village Board doesn’t have a role in picking the ambulance provider. The board set a hearing for Wednesday about giving COVA $16,000 a month on a short-term basis to help the ambulance provider stay afloat. Albion won’t have to contribute anything with COVA’s impending closing.

COVA President Jennifer Stilwell and Laurie Schwab, the chief operations officer, said COVA has reached its limit and can’t continue. They said they support Mercy Flight, which is a non-profit organization.

“The best fit is to continue with a non-profit,” Schwab told the board.

Stilwell said she favors Mercy Flight for its plan to keep two ambulances in central Orleans, keep the COVA staff, work out of the Albion base and not be hard-nosed with residents on ambulance bills.

“We tried our best,” Stilwell said. “We think this is an answer to prayer. We want to make it seamless. We haven’t closed our doors yet.”

Margaret Ferrentino, president of Mercy Flight EMS, said she has been in the EMS field for 45 years. She commended COVA for its 43 years of service. She said Mercy Flight is ready to start service in central Orleans as the first call for help.

“We want to be considered as a solution for you,” Ferrentino said at the village meeting.

She said there would be no immediate change in the service if Mercy Flight takes over. The organization would review how the COVA assets could be transferred to Mercy Flight. COVA would still be able to collect any of its bills before Mercy Flight takes over, and those older bills as they are paid would help COVA hopefully wipe out its debt.

If Mercy Flight takes over, it would start doing its own billing on the first day.

Scott Wooton, Mercy Flight vice president, believes Mercy Flight can be successful in central Orleans. Mercy Flight would keep two ambulances – an ALS and BLS – in central Orleans. Mercy also has relationships with all the major insurance carriers in Western New York to be paid for its services.

COVA has struggled financially with bill collecting, and also a high percentage of calls with patients on Medicaid or Medicare, where the reimbursement rates are very low, COVA officials said.

Mercy Flight is a $20 million organization with a staff of about 200 employees, including those in the helicopter service and ground-ambulance division. Mercy Flight does about 10,000 ambulance transports a year. COVA does about 2,000 annually.

Anna Tower, the COVA treasurer, thanked the local community for its support during a difficult past few months. She said about 1,200 to 1,500 people signed petitions to keep a community-based, non-profit ambulance in central Orleans.