Updated Wed, Dec 11, 2013 10:31 am
A six-state private ambulance service that shut down without explanation over the weekend was sued Tuesday for allegedly firing more than 2,000 paramedics and other emergency workers with no notice that they were losing their jobs.
First Med EMS, based in Wilmington, N.C., abruptly folded its tent Friday and Saturday, leaving hospitals and other medical facilities scrambling for medical transportation options in more than 70 municipalities in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
At least one municipality — Bertie County, N.C. — declared a state of emergency and said it also would pursue legal action against First Med.
The company, which operated under the names TransMed, Life Ambulance and MedCorp, transported more than a half-million patients a year, boasting in publicity materials: "We take pride in our performance and the safety of our patients. We refuse to compromise on this."
A Life Ambulance station was in operation in Nelsonville until the abrupt closing.
Company workers said in Facebook posts and tweets that they were told the corporation had declared bankruptcy, but no documents were yet on file Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In addition, no new notices in the company's name had been filed with the North Carolina secretary of state's office as of Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Wilmington by a First Med worker in Toledo, seeks class-action status on behalf of approximately 2,000 First Med workers who discovered over the weekend that their jobs had disappeared just two and a half weeks before Christmas.
The suit alleges that First Med violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, under which certain employers must give 60 days' notice of layoffs or plant closings.
The suit seeks payouts to recover 60 days' pay and bonuses, accrued holiday and vacation pay, pension and 401(k) contributions and unemployment benefits.
First Med's website remained inaccessible Tuesday, and calls to corporate offices either reached disconnected lines or weren't answered.
First Med was owned by Enhanced Equity Fund II, a New York-based fund that specializes in health-care companies. It is run by Leslie V. Norwalk, who served as acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — which oversees the day-to-day operations of Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health insurance programs — during the administration of President George W. Bush.
EEF's website says First Med employed 2,300 workers. A call to its headquarters seeking comment wasn't answered Tuesday night.
First Med was the largest EMS provider in Ohio, where at least 1,500 paramedics and other medical workers were left jobless in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Cincinnati, Youngstown and numerous smaller towns. It also provided services in Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News in Virginia, as well as Wilmington, N.C.
Much of First Med's business was "non-emergent" transportation — transporting non-emergency patients and nursing home residents to appointments — and officials in some cities said they should be able to cope.
"The patient shouldn't have seen the impact," Peter Glagola, a spokesman for Riverside Tappahanock Hospital in Tappahanock, Va., told NBC station WWBT of Richmond.
"There is no change in any type of service we have there. The hospital is open 24/7 to take care of any health care needs," Glagola said.
But Stacey Carpenter, a First Med worker in Wilmington, said, "I'm worried about all the patients that we serviced."
Carpenter — one of many former employees who flocked to the Wilmington unemployment office Monday and Tuesday — told NBC station WECT of Wilmington that she was especially worried about patients who need weekly dialysis treatments.
"It's a life-saving treatment," she told NBC station WECT of Wilmington. "What are they going to do?"