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Ambulance service bleeds cash

Yukon Emergency Medical Services is hemorrhaging money. "We're (overbudget by) $480,000 with four months to go," wrote protective services director Rick Smith in a November email obtained by the News.

Yukon Emergency Medical Services is hemorrhaging money.

“We’re (overbudget by) $480,000 with four months to go,” wrote protective services director Rick Smith in a November email obtained by the News.

“If we go over $549,000, we’re done,” he wrote.

“I mean full stop. No more ninth-day overtime.

“Populate this as ruthlessly as you can.”

Smith even suggested slashing emergency services.

“If that means idling cars or aircraft, then put it on the table,” he wrote.

By March, things were even worse.

Emergency Medical Services “cannot absorb continual reductions in operational budget without a corresponding reduction in ... service delivery,” according to an internal executive overview dated March 21.

This same overview projected that, by the end of 2011, Emergency Medical Services would be over budget by more than $600,000.

But during a news conference on Thursday, Emergency Medical Services’ new director wouldn’t confirm these numbers.

“We are looking at our budget right now, down to every electrical bill,” said Michael McKeage.

When asked directly if his branch was operating over budget, McKeage wouldn’t say.

“We are articulating the current state of budget affairs,” he said.

The news conference was called to discuss an Emergency Medical Services audit released this month.

The audit cites budget problems.

“There is evidence further efforts are required to improve management’s ability to control expenditures,” said its executive summary.

Emergency Medical Services has plans to save money.

But these weren’t mentioned during the news conference.

They were laid out in an internal executive overview, obtained by the News.

One of the money-saving plans is to get rid of rural ambulance service.

There would be three rural hubs: Haines Junction, Dawson City and Watson Lake, said the internal overview.

“Communities outside these hubs ... would fall under the auspices of the (rural) fire departments.”

When asked about this plan, McKeage ducked the question.

Emergency Medical Services has a good working relationship with the rural fire departments and is working to continue this relationship, he said.

Cuts are also recommended for the Eagle Plains ambulance detachment.

“At Eagle Plains, in the last 18 months, there have been zero calls ... and standby pay has cost $50,236,” said the overview.

“It is strongly recommended that this detachment be devolved to Highways and Public Works,” it said.

There is still a vehicle at Eagle Plains, said McKeage, when asked.

He didn’t elaborate.

Another suggestion in the confidential document was to contract out medevac services.

“The Yukon is the only jurisdiction in Canada that maintains a medevac staff on payroll,” it said.

Cutting the two rural manager positions in Dawson and Watson Lake was also suggested.

“We don’t use the words cut, we are not in the business of cutting,” said McKeage.

As for the two rural managers, “their duties were dispersed,” he said.

Emergency Medical Services’ budget chaos is being blamed on rising call volume.

Since being transferred from Health to Community Services in 2007, the ambulance service’s yearly call volume has risen to almost 7,000 from 3,700.

As a result, the Whitehorse station has seen an increase of 16.5 full-time jobs.

But the department has gone into the red trying to pay its staff.

And, employee morale is a problem, according to the 25-page audit report.

“There is evidence EMS staff have concerns relating to their work environment,” it said.

In the last year, the ambulance corps has lost roughly six staff, including its new director Nicholas Tilgner and longtime employee David Moriaux.

Communication is a problem within the department, according to the audit.

And the dispatch system - which Emergency Medical Services relies on to receive calls and attend emergencies -“has been subject to failure,” it said.

Finally, the audit found “considerable work remains” when it comes to strategic planning and risk management.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Another audit, completed in November by a private firm - but never publicly released - came down hard on Emergency Medical Services.

There are a “limited number” of safe work practices in place and “most people have not seen them,” said the health and safety program audit.

Personal protective equipment has not been distributed to base stations and no one is even aware of it, said the 66-page document.

There is no system in place to remove defective tools and equipment, and there is no inspection policy.

There is also no policy in place for accident investigations, said the audit.

And this isn’t the end of it.

Emergency Medical Service staff isn’t trained for emergencies and, at the community level, there are no safety reps, it said.

McKeage refused to discuss this other audit at Thursday’s news conference.

“I’ll have to speak to that at another time,” he said.

In the meantime, to cut costs, Emergency Medical Services has frozen overtime hours, as well as travel and training. It has stopped backfilling and placed a hiring freeze on nonoperational staff, according to a November financial status report obtained by the News.

Air and ground staff have also been nixed to help cut salary costs, according to the report.

And the number of rural volunteers needed on a call has been downsized to two from three.

Medevac night flights were also cancelled, according to the status report.

And if medevac staff cannot make a shift, rather than backfilling or offering fill-in staff overtime, the medevac flights will be grounded, it said.

“Any medevac requirements that arise will be the responsibility of Health and Social Services and southern medevac services,” says the report.

This way, costs are transferred to another department and don’t show up on Emergency Medical Services’ books.

“The system is stable and effective,” said McKeage.

And Emergency Medical Services is working to meet the recommendations of the new audit, he said.

“We agree with the audit.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at