Vern Hunter, founder of Hunter's Ambulance in Meriden, stands next to a 1953 Cadillac ambulance currently being restored for the company's 50th celebration, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal)
July 16, 2013 12:35PM
By Mary Ellen Godin
MERIDEN — Vern Hunter smiled broadly at the refurbished maroon 1953 Cadillac ambulance with “Hunter’s Ambulance” written in gold on the side.
It’s a replica of the first ambulance he bought — for $450 — in Brooklyn, N.Y., when Hunter started his own company in 1963. He agreed that, when finished, the car would be perfect for parades, or other possibilities he would only hint at.
“We’re always working on something here,” Hunter said.
At age 82, Hunter is now chairman of the board of directors of Hunter’s Ambulance and Transportation Services, a company that originated as a wrecker business and has thrived for 50 years, becoming one of the largest emergency medical service providers in the state.
The Cadillac will be presented to Hunter this summer in honor of the company’s halfcentury anniversary. Hunter may need the help of a walker to get around these days, but that won’t stop him from driving the old Caddy, he said.
Since its humble beginnings, Hunter’s Ambulance has grown to be one of only nine private ambulance companies in the state, and employs 450 people.
Last month, it opened a fullservice ambulance operation in Old Saybrook, and has ancillary offices on the city’s east side and in New London, Middletown, Yalesville and Berlin.
When Hunter became president of the Association of Connecticut Ambulance Providers in the 1970s, there were 39 privately owned companies.
“There were a lot of momand- pops back then,” Hunter said. But two decades later, the owners were forced to make tough choices to survive in the changing industry: buy other companies or get bought. Hunter chose growth.
In the 1960s, Hunter owned his own wrecking company in the city and would often arrive on the scene of motor vehicle accidents before the local ambulance. In many cases, he would assist the ambulance driver with the patient and transportation to the local hospital.
Giving it a try
Hunter recognized a local need for better emergency service and got started in the business with his first vehicle purchase. After negotiating for local business, he bought several more vehicles and continued to reinvest in his company. He and his late wife, Barbara, who took care of the couple’s eight children while answering the company phone, didn’t collect a salary for 11 years and survived off the wrecking business.
“Throughout the years, Barbara would ask me if I was doing the right thing,” Hunter said. “I would say, ‘I’m not sure, but we’re going to give it a try.’ ” By 1976, he was able to buy his competition, Kamen’s Ambulance, and continue expanding. He was also aware of the need for standards in health care and safety within the industry and strove for improvement. In 1964, he completed the first Ambulance American Red Cross Course; in 1965, the National Ambulance Training Institute course in Massachusetts; and in 1969, the first National Ambulance Training course in D.C.
In 1971, Hunter graduated from the first Emergency Medical Technician course in the state and was appointed to a 25-member Connecticut Ambulance Advisory Board by governors Thomas Meskill and Ella Grasso. He also served as president of the Association of Connecticut Ambulance Providers.
The appointment to the governors’ board meant lobbying for industry gains and relaying to members what was coming in terms of funding and other industry news. Before 1965, there was no Medicare, and “self pay” generally meant no pay, which continues to adversely affect ambulance companies today, said David Lowell, Hunter’s chief operating officer.
“That committee formed statutes and regulations and assigned territories,” Lowell said. “It gave the public peace of mind” that someone covered their area, “and regulated rates like a public utility. It established standards, and he was part of it.”
Hunter’s Ambulance doubled its business in Central and South Central Connecticut when it purchased Professional Ambulance Service of Middletown in 1989 for $3.5 million. The limousine services followed in 1990, and later the company began securing contracts with area school boards to transport developmentally and physically disabled students.
Hunter’s Ambulance has enjoyed a good relationship with Meriden, but this year city officials cut Hunter’s medical dispatch services to save $285,000 in its annual budget, $40,000 of which was on its contract with Hunters.
Lowell told city officials in April that dropping a third party puts patients at risk that service could be delayed and that trained medical call takers would not be able to help as much as they do now when somebody on the phone is in need.
Lowell said this week he understands the city has a lot to gain financially by managing its own medical calls in house, since it receives subsidies through the Enhanced 911 Telecommunications Fund. Lowell suggests a better solution could be putting trained personnel at the city’s dispatch center to field the medical calls. He said the ambulance companies have been lobbying for changes in the law to allow such a practice.
All of Barbara and Vernon Hunter’s children, as well as two grandchildren, are emergency medical technicians. Each child has also worked in the family business at one time or another.
“Everyone said if you want to go to a picnic, go to Hunter’s,” Hunter likes to joke.
“It’s full of EMTs.”
But tragedy struck the family when his oldest son, Daniel Hunter, then the company president, died in a motorcycle crash two years ago. His sister, Donna Hunter, stepped in to lead the company.
Donna Hunter credits her father’s vision and determination for having made Hunter’s the success it is today.
“He knew they needed health standards and he employed thousands of people who have helped make a huge impact on the community,” she said. “He’s made a huge impact on the community.”
Vern Hunter and his children have been involved in the local Rotary Clubs. Hunter and sons Dan and Dale earned the notable Paul Harris Fellow distinction. Their slogan, which came from an employee — “Concern for Others” — is on every ambulance and displayed prominently at the West Main Street headquarters.
“He started with his concern for others, and that’s become our motto,” said another daughter, Dana Hunter-Moyer. “And we continue to live by that.”
Mayor Michael S. Rohde praised the company for its professionalism and service to the community. He said he recalls its early days and has enjoyed watching its growth through the years.
“Hunter’s is a homegrown business,” Rohde said. “It’s very much a family business. It’s a great Meriden success story that has expanded statewide. There is a huge commitment to keeping resources in the city with its headquarters on West Main Street and east-side expansion.”
Into the future
While contemplating his official retirement, Vern Hunter restructured the company on an Employee Stock Ownership Plan business model. The structure allows more employees a direct ownership stake in the company.
“Vern reflected on the years of challenge, growth and accomplishment and recognized that the success of the organization in reaching and maintaining a high quality of service ... was due to the hard work and commitment of his family and the many employees who work hard day in and day out,” Donna Hunter said.
She plans to carry on her father’s legacy as president by serving the community and readying the company for upcoming changes in the emergency medical services industry.
The implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act means working with more hospitals and clinics to reduce readmission rates, said Donna Hunter. This means finding ways emergency medical services can partner with hospitals and clinics to create treatment options aimed at preventing patients from returning to the hospital.
Gary Ludwig wrote in the April Journal of Emergency Medical Services that to avoid readmissions, emergency medical systems can perform a variety of services, including checking on patients for home visits or, if complications arise, transporting the patient to another level of care. “What’s likely to change for EMS is how we deal with chronically ill patients who call 911 because they have waited too long to address their medical problem or because they lack health insurance and use the emergency department as an entry into the healthcare system to address their problem,” Ludwig wrote.
“The history of 911 is access to care,” Lowell said. “Some of those calls are access to primary care. Should that be an ambulance response? Or, are there new ways to provide care?”
For instance, instead of an ambulance ride to a hospital emergency room, a patient may only need a paramedic and transport to a lowerpriced clinic, he said.
“We’re in a very different world,” Lowell said.
Medicare funds only 60 cents on the dollar, leaving medical providers such as ambulance operators to make up the difference. The new law will force those in the health care industry to work together to find lower-cost solutions to patient care, Lowell said.
“We want to be at the forefront of the industry and be part of the solution,” Donna Hunter said.