AUSTELL, Ga. -
An ambulance service that was the subject of a FOX 5 I-Team investigation is now on probation.
The Georgia Department of Public Health placed Caring Hands EMS on two years probation as punishment for using unlicensed ambulances and an unlicensed EMT.
It all stems from a whistleblower complaint sent to state and federal authorities, and the FOX 5 I-Team.
"It didn't take me a couple of weeks to realize I was not in a very good place," one former employee told us.
He worked there for 30 days. She was there eight months.
"They got away with a lot," she remembered. "That's all I can say."
Because both still work in the field of emergency care, we agreed not to use their names or show their faces.
"We were told that's not your job," said one. "Don't worry about that."
In 2017, the pair alerted the FOX 5 I-Team about a complaint they filed with government regulators. They claimed Caring Hands EMS was billing Medicare to transport people to dialysis who could actually walk -- people who were ambulatory.
We saw it too when we followed Caring Hands ambulances around West Cobb, Paulding and Douglas County.
"We had one patient that walked up the stairs when you brought her home and she walked down the stairs when you picked her up to take her to dialysis," remarked one of the whistle blowers. "That was not one patient. That was a lot of patients that were walking, ambulatory that didn't need to go by ambulance."
Medicare would not comment on whether it is investigating Caring Hands. The government pays an average of $500 for each ambulance round trip to dialysis. For those who are ambulatory, it costs taxpayers only $100 round trip if they go by van. Big difference.
The whistle blowers say they tried to bring their concerns to Caring Hands EMS director Floyd Keels, and got an unusual response.
"This is the first agency I've worked for that said just run the call as you're told to do," insisted one of the former employees. "Don't worry about whether they meet the criteria. That's not your concern."
Floyd Keels did not respond to our requests for comment. When we tried to get answers from Caring Hands last year, Floyd Keels refused and asked me to leave the property.
Since then, Caring Hands has moved to a new location and finds itself under a new level of scrutiny. The state of Georgia has no jurisdiction over Medicare-related dialysis trips, but it is responsible for something else: stopping companies from using unregistered, uninspected ambulances.
State EMS investigators discovered Caring Hands used unregistered ambulances 61 times. The company paid a $25,000 fine.
Then investigators discovered Caring Hands used an unlicensed EMT on 88 transports. That landed the company on probation for two years.
"It's a fairly rare step" admitted Georgia EMS deputy director Ernie Doss. "Most of our ambulance services don't violate our rules. So this particular case we're wanting to make sure this company understands what the rules and regulations are for the safe transport of Georgians."
It may be a rare step, but two whistle blowers don't think it goes far enough.
"I think they should have had their doors shut," one of them demanded.
While on probation, Caring Hands is not allowed to expand its fleet of ambulances beyond 11.