By Richard Sullins |

Lee County commissioners voted 5-2 Monday night to select FirstHealth of the Carolinas to take over EMS services for the county effective October 1.

Commissioners Mark Lovick, Robert Reives, Cameron Sharpe, all Democrats, and Republicans Arianna Lavallee and Dr. Andre Knecht voted in favor of the EMS Advisory Committee’s recommendation to award the franchise to FirstHealth. Opposing the measure were Board Chairman Kirk Smith and Commissioner Bill Carver, both Republicans.

A crowd of about 125 people gathered at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center to listen as the commissioners conducted the second of two public hearings on awarding the contract, which had been held since the 1990s by Central Carolina Hospital EMS. 21 persons spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting that lasted for more than 90 minutes.

Most of those addressing the commissioners spoke in favor of Central Carolina retaining the contract, which expires on September 30. Spencer Thomas, outgoing CEO at CCH, spoke to the differences between the sizes of the two organizations as being a bit of a David and Goliath comparison.

“We may not be able to offer the same level of technology that our competitor offers, but the stabilizing care that we do offer can many times mean the difference between life and death,” he said.

Dr. Philip Brondon, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Central Carolina Hospital, told the commissioners that he felt “very fortunate to have a very high-quality EMS service at our disposal. Changing this service to an out-of-county provider could reduce the access of our citizens to quality care and drive them away from local providers.”

Another speaker, Matthew Hemby of Lillington, expressed the views of some in the crowd when he said “it appears that FirstHealth is trying to monopolize this region and that can’t be good for this community.”

Others had differing views. Former State Representative Leslie Cox argued in favor of accepting the Advisory Committee’s recommendation to award the contract to FirstHealth, saying that “it would be pretty foolish to go against the advice of these professionals.”

Dr. Matthew Harmony of Sandhills Emergency Physicians, and medical director for FirstHealth EMS, sought to put the fears of some to rest.

“The closest and most appropriate hospital for every patient in Lee County, with rare exceptions, will be Central Carolina Hospital. Nothing here changes that,” he said. “Our paramedics will ask where patients where they want to go and, as long as that’s appropriate, that’s where they are taken.”

Mickey Foster, CEO of FirstHealth of the Carolinas and a native of Lee County, said that his connection with the community is personal.

“I will do nothing to harm Sanford and Lee County,” he said.

Lovick and Sharpe both called the decision as being among the most difficult during their terms in office. Carver, however, saw his role as not simply accepting the recommendation of the Advisory Committee.

“This vote comes tonight from the commission, not the committee. We have to take personal responsibility for it,” he said.

The county will now begin negotiations with FirstHealth for an EMS services contract and the details of that eventual agreement will be made public. The same EMS Advisory Board that recommended FirstHealth will now oversee its performance and report any concerns it has back to the commissioners. Although FirstHealth said that it expects to make employment offers to many Central Carolina EMS workers, several have indicated that they will seek employment elsewhere or leave the field altogether.