Kutztown Ambulance ceases operations after 37 years of service [Updated]

Aug. 2—Editor's note: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 2, 2023, to include comments from the municipalities and to correct that Kutztown Ambulance is a private company.

Kutztown Ambulance has informed the four municipalities in its primary service area that it has terminated operations after 37 years.

The decision to terminate emergency medical services, which was effective at 6 p.m. Tuesday, was announced in a letter to the borough of Kutztown as well as Maxatawny, Greenwich and Richmond townships and the Berks County Department of Emergency Services. It comes after years of discussions with and presentations to local officials over the financial crisis affecting Kutztown and other independent, community-based emergency medical services.

The perfunctory letter stated Kutztown Ambulance/Kutztown Area Transport Service, which like many community ambulance services was launched decades ago by the Lions Club, has provided emergency medical services for 37 years without receiving municipal funding.

"The days of providing these services without municipal or government funding have ended," the letter stated.

All operations — EMS as well as non-emergency medical transports — have been terminated, Allison Fuller, Kutztown Area Ambulance office manager, confirmed Wednesday.

Community ambulance services rely largely on insurance reimbursements to fund their operations. A number of municipalities in Berks contribute nothing or next to nothing to ambulance companies that serve their residents and businesses, while volunteer fire companies often receive a dedicated stream of local tax revenue.

Kutztown Ambulance officials are not alone in sounding the alarm that insurance reimbursements and limited funding are not keeping up with operating expenses and that without dedicated government funding they will be forced to cease operations.

"This isn't anything anyone wanted," Fuller said. "But when you look at what reimbursements are, it's just not paying the bills."

Kutztown Ambulance/Kutztown Area Transport Service employed 29 people, she said.

Displaced emergency medical technicians and paramedics will likely be able to find work among the patchwork of ambulance companies serving the region, if they choose. EMS agencies have been dealing with a national staffing crisis, especially acute since the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ongoing financial crisis.

Kutztown and the surrounding townships won't be without 911 service, Fuller said. Other area ambulance companies will pick up the calls that would have been routed to Kutztown Ambulance by Berks County 911 dispatchers. They use "run cards" to decide which companies to dispatch initially.

Kutztown Ambulance, which operated from its station in Maxatawny Township, isn't the first community ambulance company in Berks to fold. Some companies have been absorbed in mergers.

Early this year, Western Berks Ambulance terminated 911 ambulance service in Amity and Union townships and Birdsboro after months of discussions with the municipalities about funding. Western Berks said it was losing money providing the service at the funding levels previously negotiated with those municipalities.

Tower Direct, the nonprofit ambulance service of West Reading-based Tower Health, filled the void, entering into three-year contracts with each municipality.

The Reading Eagle asked the county Department of Emergency Services how the termination of EMS services from Kutztown Ambulance would impact the countywide EMS system.

In a statement, DES Director Brian Gottschall replied: "Berks DES maintain plans that anticipate these kinds of issues and, as of 1800 hours yesterday (Tuesday), those plans were enacted and K.A.T.S. was placed out of service in the system. The next due ambulance will be recommended for any calls where a K.A.T.S unit would have previously responded.

"In concert with those plans, we also made administrative notifications to the fire and EMS mutual aid partners most likely to be affected and alerted them that they would likely see an increased call volume (in the case of EMS) or be on-scene for longer than normal in a supporting role prior to the arrival of an EMS transport unit (in the case of fire). Some agencies were already aware of the situation at the time of our outreach."

Jerilyn Wehr, Maxatawny Township secretary/treasurer, said Wednesday that she relayed the contents of the letter from Kutztown Ambulance to the township supervisors and is working with the township solicitor on changing the primary EMS service provider to Topton Ambulance. That company already provides service to the township, so officials don't expect much of an impact on residents.

Diane Hollenbach, Greenwich Township's administrator, posted a notice on the township's Facebook page late Tuesday afternoon after receiving the termination letter from Kutztown Ambulance. The letter, which arrived at 3 p.m. "without any forewarning or communication," stated that the service would terminate as of 6 p.m. that day.

In a follow-up post Wednesday, she said: "The township has been in contact with Berks County Emergency Services and our Director of Emergency Operations, Matt Brett. For the past 8 years, Greenwich Township has had three primary ambulance providers who split the townships emergency medical calls.

"The township, in coordination with the Berks 911 system, also has a system in place to have the next closest ambulance respond to the township should our three primary ambulances be busy. With Kutztown Transport no longer providing service, this will be no different than an ambulance being busy on another call and the next closest ambulance being dispatched. This system ensures our township will see no lapse in coverage with little noticeable difference in response time."

Officials from the borough of Kutztown and Richmond Township were not immediately available.