PINE BELT (WDAM) - No one likes to think they’ll need it, but when there’s an emergency, where you live matters. Your lifeline is often one of two resources, hospital or ambulance, and timing is everything.
State law requires ambulance service providers be licensed. We had to a file a public records request through the Department of Health just to get the list. According to it, Mississippi has 91 licensed provides, 24 of them based in neighboring states. In the Pine Belt, there are just eight. The largest is AAA Ambulance Service, serving 10 counties in South Mississippi.
"It’s a real effort,” said AAA Ambulance Service CEO Wade Spruill, who sees firsthand the day-to-day balancing act it takes to get the job done.
"We're running hundreds of calls a day,” said Spruill
Those calls are spread between about 30 ambulances a day. That kind of service can get expensive, which can leave rural counties in a bind, unable to afford it. For instance, Perry County, served by AAA, has only one ambulance to cover the entire county, posted near the hospital in Richton.
"It's a small rural county and sometimes, you know, services are not there when they need to be as quickly as possible," said Spruill.
If that one ambulance is on a call, Spruill said AAA will send another one, at no cost.
"We do that because we worry about the patients," said Spruill.
Spruill said that type of backup happens every day, but how busy the system is in other areas could jeopardize coverage, when seconds are critical. Many times, it’s those folks in rural areas who have to wait the longest.
"Yeah and we self-impose response times on ourselves to make sure that we minimize that as much as we can,” said Spruill
With hospitals scattered across the Pine Belt, there are lots of folks who have longer trips to get to one, which is when an ambulance can make a big difference.
While Spruill said he’s happy with his response times, he’s not satisfied.
"We’ll never be satisfied until we can get to everybody, but the reality of it is, where you are determines what kind of care you get,” said Spruill.
In some areas of the state, ambulance providers play an even more critical role. In the past five years, five rural hospitals closed. In the past few months, four filed for bankruptcy.
"Most of our citizens in this state are rural citizens who depend on their rural hospitals for care," said Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program.
Mitchell points to the state's position to not expand Medicaid as a main reason rural hospitals flat-line.
“This is something that all Mississippians should be concerned about," Mitchell said. "Mississippi is a leader in medical debt. Mississippi has access problems. This is only exacerbated by the fact that our rural hospitals are closing.”
Mitchell said that creates a big problem.
"It's a huge issue because it's an issue of life or death," said Mitchell
Hospital closures and bankruptcies haven’t hit the Pine Belt yet, but that doesn’t mean ambulance providers aren’t paying attention. Behind the scenes at AAA, it’s 12-hour shifts for dispatchers, constant monitoring and scenarios of how to provide better service and faster, especially to folks who live further away.
“Sometimes if you had a hundred vehicles responding, you’d need 102. You know, it’s just the nature of the beast,” said Spruill.