THIS JUST IN: Information received from Madera County regarding the proportion of our population indicates an even greater need to take advantage of Sierra Ambulance’s service. Per information provided by Robert Macaulay, Chief of Staff to Tom Wheeler, Madera County District 5 has the highest concentration of both elderly and disabled. Nearly 20 per cent of our population is age 65 and above. These are two sectors of our citizenry who often can least afford the expense of an ambulance ride for medical care.
OAKHURST – Amazon doesn’t have it. Vons and Raley’s don’t have it. True Value doesn’t have it. Not even Grocery Outlet sells it.
So where IS the best value in our mountain area?
Sierra Ambulance, that’s where.
With minimal emergency services available here in the Eastern Madera County mountain area, an ambulance ride to the nearest full-service emergency facility can cost thousands of dollars. For a purchase of $65 per year, Sierra Ambulance offers one trip down the mountain to Fresno area hospital facilities for enrollees and household members who reside with them. Compare this with an estimated cost of $3,100 for other ambulance transport from Oakhurst to Fresno. The minimal-cost membership covers copays, deductibles or the whole bill if there is no insurance or if the patient’s insurance company denies the claim.
According to Ed Guzman, Executive Director for the 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 1964, Sierra Ambulance receives no government subsidies but exists through the generous support of the community it serves, as well as reimbursements from insurance and patient billing. The company currently enrolls 2,400 households out of approximately 10,000 households in the Eastern Madera County communities, so potentially many more households—particularly those with senior citizens—could take advantage of this service.
Guzman, who came to the Eastern Madera County area thirty years ago from service as a paramedic San Diego, brings a wealth of experience to the leadership of Sierra Ambulance. He is joined by 25 paramedics and emergency medical technicians along with an administrative staff of four—the executive director, an operations manager, a controller and a billing coordinator. They operate four ambulances from three locations: the Oakhurst headquarters, the government center in Bass Lake and the Coarsegold station located near Highway 41 and Road 417.
Asked how the pandemic/shutdown affected Sierra Ambulance, Ed, who has served as executive director for almost 24 years, since 1997, stated. “The pandemic and the resulting shut down affected
us as it has virtually everyone. Initially we struggled to provide enough personal protective equipment for our staff. The County Health Department was a huge help in that regard. We had employees who became sick or had family that became ill, so we had to deal with an increase in absenteeism in our own ranks, but our staff rose to the occasion and worked the extra shifts to insure we always had ambulances ready to respond.”
Initially Sierra Ambulance’s call volume dropped by almost twenty per cent as people reflected justifiable concerns about exposing themselves to possible infection inside hospitals and outside their family cocoons. This resulted in the first responders performing many in-home assessments and treatments. They counseled some patients to remain in-home as a safety measure.
As Ed further says, “We were fortunate to have the financial depth and a dedicated staff that allowed us to continue care and service throughout the height of the pandemic; still, it was challenging and at times, heartbreaking as we saw more and more Covid cases, some of which ended tragically. We are more than thrilled that the worst does seem to be behind us.”
As the community begins to emerge from the shutdown, Sierra Ambulance’s call activity has returned to pre-pandemic levels. The uptick in local outdoor activity has resulted in added requests for service on local trails and at Bass Lake.
At this point Sierra Ambulance expects to finish 2021 with roughly 4,000 requests for service and transports for close to 3,000 patients to area hospitals. They serve all area hospitals in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.
Sierra Ambulance responds to all 911 calls regardless of the patient’s enrollment in the ambulance subscription program. If the patient has insurance, insurance is billed for the service, but not all insurance companies pay equally, and some individuals and households have no insurance whatsoever.
Ed says, “We cannot pick and choose who we care for, nor would we. We are obligated morally and legally to provide service to anyone who calls 911 regardless of their ability to pay. The problem we see now is the same problem that providers throughout healthcare are experiencing. As insurance gets more and more expensive, people must make choices to buy plans they can afford. Many of those plans have high co-pays and deductibles. Patients become responsible for those out-of-pocket expenses.
“It is important to remember that the real cost of 911 service is in the individual request for service, it is really in the cost of being ready and available to answer the call day or night, every day of the year. We purchase equipment and pay staff to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Our staff is on duty and in station 7/24 whether anyone calls 911 or not.”
Sierra Ambulance works with patients without subscriptions who find themselves with a bill for services rendered. They will work out a plan for monthly no-interest payments. But Ed states that there is a limit to what Sierra Ambulance can provide without incoming revenue necessary to ensure quality service to the community.
With much of our households in rural areas, Sierra Ambulance and its three locations provide the quickest and safest response to emergency situations in Eastern Madera County. A fee of $65 is a minimal-cost to provide an invaluable service. To reiterate, for $65 a year the whole household can be covered. The membership covers any copay or deductible, so there is no out-of- pocket cost to subscribers. The membership is good for one year or one transport to area acute-care hospitals and is immediately renewable if used. The subscription year starts anew at that point.
In addition, Sierra Ambulance supports the community it serves by offering EMS awareness programs to area schools and community service groups as well as citizen CPR classes free-of-charge and provide ambulance standby services to a variety of community events including all area high school home football games, the annual Bass Lake Triathlon, the Grizzly Century Ride and the Coarsegold Rodeo. We are happy to support other non-profit, community-oriented events happening in eastern Madera County.
Guzman assures that Sierra Ambulance continues to grow with the community with a commitment to expand ambulance coverage as demand and resources allow. We have partnered with Madera County and the North Fork Mono Rancheria, as the Rancheria has received funding for the construction of a new public safety building adjacent to the current North Fork Volunteer Fire Station. The new building will provide sleeping and living facilities for firefighters as well as Sierra Ambulance personnel, and they are constructing a garage large enough to accommodate our ambulance. It is our goal to provide faster and more available emergency medical services to the greater North Fork community.
As Ed affirms, “We are always looking for new and different ways to meet the health and safety needs of the community. We work every day with our co-responders in the fire department and the Sheriff’s office. Many people may not know that all sheriff’s patrol vehicles come equipped with automatic defibrillators and that many deputies are also certified EMTs. We are humbled by the trust and support the community has shown us over the many years.”
To join, visit the Sierra Ambulance website or call the business office at 559/642-0650. It’s a huge benefit, providing peace of mind at a bargain-basement price.