Volunteer Ambulance Corps aims to treat minor emergencies within the community, saving patients lengthy trips to ERs
By Jamie Organski
As a rural tourist town, Old Forge has been grappling with limited health care services for several decades. This issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic, an influx of visitors, and a drastic drop in medical professionals, including nurses, EMTs, paramedics and ambulance drivers.
During a 2017 public hearing residents expressed grievances with Webb’s limited healthcare services: the absence of an urgent care center, no after-hours, telehealth, or weekend care. People needing those services must drive an hour away, to Utica or Lowville.
Old Forge Volunteer Ambulance Corps (OFVAC) receives an average of 450 calls each year, and has taken on a wider coverage area since Big Moose’s ambulance corps went out of service this January.
Since that time, the Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) Medical Group-Town of Webb Health Center has added telehealth services and entered into a subsidy agreement with the town of Webb in order to retain two physicians. The community also lost a local pediatrician, leaving a void in specialty care.
“Webb goes from [an off-season population of] about 1,900 to about 36,000+ people in the summertime. We invite these people here and we cannot take care of all of them,” Hoepfl added.
In 2021, 48,000 low-acuity cases (people who have minor ailments) were admitted to Utica area emergency rooms, according to Hoepfl.
“Those patients tied up ambulances and emergency rooms because people don’t know where else to go,” she said. “We are the first line of defense on nights and weekends because when health centers are closed, people dial 911.”
An EMT/Critical Care Technician, Hoepfl has been in emergency services for 32 years, along with her 81-year-old father, Dan Rivet Jr. who serves as the county coroner and is still responding to calls in his 60th year as a paramedic. Rivet emphasized the ongoing need for additional volunteers, and the ambulance corps will host EMS classes this May through August in Inlet.
“We are the only medical care in the area for people without an appointment, and we need new blood,” Rivet said. “There is always a need for volunteer drivers, EMTs and paramedics (and many other roles such as office work.) No experience is necessary. We will provide all the training.”
Creating a health care solution
To address the problem, OFVAC is on a quest to bring a mobile integrated health (MIH) program to Webb. Defined as patient-centered, mobile resources in an out-of-hospital environment, the MIH program would provide after-hours care for minor emergencies in people’s homes and in OFVAC’s headquarters on State Route 28 (in the former Muffin Patch restaurant).
“During the pandemic, we saw the dire need for these types of services in rural areas,” she said. “We want to be a part of the solution and address some of the problems in our community.”
Hoepfl said the group is awaiting approval from the state’s Department of Health before they are able to seek grant funding for what may be one of the first official MIH programs in the state.
“MVHS is standing behind us, as our area is the perfect model for a MIH program,” Hoepfl said. “MIH programs have worked in other states, New York just has to jump on board.”
For the past 7 years, OFVAC has been responding to emergencies 24/7, 365 days a year. For its next steps, the corps plans to start with a pilot program.
Hoepfl said bringing MIH to Webb is a joint effort of many, including Robin Hill of LivingADK who is also working with Midstate EMS in planning the pilot program. LivingADK’s role, via its health care committee established in 2019, will be to bring awareness of the MIH program to insurance carriers, home health care providers, and promote the pilot while educating the public about the service.
“We have a great working relationship with MVHS,” Hill said. “[We] feel that the MIH pilot could be a wonderful layer of service to rural communities serving non-emergency needs locally, while keeping paramedics free to respond to urgent calls.”
By serving minor emergency cases through MIH, hospital readmissions, non-emergency transports, and overall costs to hospitals/insurance providers will be reduced while creating a new revenue source for the local volunteer ambulance corps, Hill continued.
All MIH visits will be done under the order of a physician, Hoepfl said. MIH staff will assess the patient, take vitals, allow patients to speak with their primary care provider, and ensure the patient has their necessary prescriptions. They will also perform a visual assessment of the home to identify fall risks, etc.
OFVAC President Gary Staab said he wanted to be clear that if anyone, especially the elderly, feels unsafe or unsure about their health, absolutely dial 911.
“Low acuity care will allow us to get the job done, save people trips to the ER, and help stressed kids and parents for things like fish hooks lodged into hands,” Staab said. “It happens more than you think.”
Staab highlighted shared services in Webb with OFVAC, the fire department, HASCA and other emergency service providers. Staab said MIH staff will work in conjunction with other services in town.
“We stand by our own and provide mutual aid to other services as often as we can,” he said.
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