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Fighting 911 abuse

Officials say many calls aren't emergencies

Officials say many calls aren't emergencies

October 11, 2005

HAGERSTOWN

erinc@herald-mail.com

Community Rescue Service received an emergency call last week to assist a resident who had fallen at her home.

While the request was not an uncommon one, the address - an apartment on East Washington Street - was familiar to emergency personnel.

Emergency medical technicians told dispatchers they were "very familiar" with the residence. They had been to this home before, sometimes as many as three times in one day, Chief Chris Amos said.

When they arrive, the story is always the same; the resident had fallen and needed to be picked up and helped into her bed, he said.

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It is never an emergency, and the resident is never injured, he said.

Amos and Chief Financial Officer Terry Trovinger said the woman could easily have been helped by a neighbor, family member or friend.

It is calls like this - dubbed "911 abuse" - that are costing the nonprofit organization as much as $50,000 a month, officials said.

Residents, businesses and nursing homes call 911 with nonemergencies, Amos said. Residents often request an ambulance, saying they need to be taken to the hospital, and are waiting on the curb with an overnight bag when the ambulance arrives, Amos said.

The 911 abusers typically don't have transportation to the hospital or don't want to wait in line once they are there, he said. Taking an ambulance to get a prescription filled at the hospital also is common, Amos said.

"They just hop in and get a ride to the hospital," he said.

Each time CRS dispatches an ambulance - roughly once every hour - it costs about $282, Trovinger said. An average bill for CRS services is $520, but after insurance deductions and write-offs, the average amount received for an ambulance ride is $314, he said.

Nearly 25 percent of that money never makes it to CRS. Ten percent of patients CRS transports have no insurance and no way to pay for the ambulance, officials said.

"We're not going to take a little old lady to court because she can't pay for an ambulance," Amos said.

Twelve percent of CRS patients refuse to be taken to the hospital; when this happens, CRS does not receive any money for its services, Trovinger said.

EMTs often respond to a nursing home and are told CRS was called because there was a long wait for a private ambulance, Amos said. The patient did not need immediate medical attention and could have easily waited for the private ambulance, he said.

Amos would not say which nursing homes are abusing the 911 system.

"It makes it hard to do your job," Amos said.

He said CRS struggles to serve the community because time is consumed with nonemergencies and 911 abusers. Thirty-five percent of CRS patients have no "true reason" to be transported to the hospital, he said.

In one case, EMTs frequently were rushing one man to the hospital. Each time, the man signed out of the emergency room without being seen by a doctor or nurse, Amos said.

"So, we put a warrant out for 911 abuse," he said. "It is against the law to make a false 911 call."

CRS has attempted to take a proactive approach with such patients, borrowing an idea from a fire company in the state of Washington: If people are using ambulances as taxi cabs, why not use taxi cabs to transport patients?

"We sent a letter out to all taxi cab companies," Amos said. "If we find out it is a nonemergency, can the patient get a free ride from a cab company, if the patient agreed they didn't need an ambulance?"

The service would be used only if it was clear the patient did not need medical attention en route to the hospital. CRS received no response.

Trovinger said the answer might be another ambulance unit in downtown Hagerstown.

"We really need to get that third crew up and running," Amos said.

Trovinger would like to see Hagerstown and Washington County donate a combined $250,000 to CRS to help pay for additional crews downtown.

"How do you say we are not serving our community?" he asked. "We need an extra unit to support it, but we have no revenue to supply (the extra unit). If we were paid for everything we did, or even nearly everything we did, we wouldn't have this problem."

Trovinger said city and county officials are responsible for providing emergency services and should reimburse CRS for ambulance calls for which patients do not pay. With reimbursments, the ambulance company would be able to pay for the additional crew downtown.

"We want to better serve this community," he said. "What could be more important than saving a life?"

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