LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - When someone calls 911 for help, you probably have the impression it's a serious, even life-threatening concern. In many cases it is but in many others, it's not. And that's been a problem facing ambulance companies for years.
In our THV Extra, we take a closer look at ambulance free-loading, people abusing the system and taking away vital resources when you need it most.
Ambulance companies here in Central Arkansas and beyond say this abuse happens anywhere from once a month to several times a week. And while paramedics have to respond, it's a definite frustration for them. There are some budding efforts with health care reform to tackle the problem. But for now, paramedics have a clear message for abusers: Think about what you're doing and who may be hurting as a result.
At Yell County EMS in Danville last weekend, choppers arrive to take car accident victims to the hospital. Paramedics brought them here for the flight, responding to a clear emergency. But that's not always the case.
"They make it sound like it's urgent enough that they need emergency care and a lot of times once we get there, we realize they're somebody that's obviously abusing the system," Paramedic Nathan Traylor said.
It's an abuse that Paramedic Nathan Traylor says typically happens when the patient strikes out with a doctor.
"Most of the time after they've been denied access at a local clinic for financial reasons and stuff like that," Traylor said.
They are basically treating the emergency room as their doctor's office and using the ambulance as their "wheels."
"It says emergency medical services on the side, it doesn't say Taxi but some of them think it's another ride," Sidney Ward said.
Sidney Ward runs Yell County EMS. He's also the President of the Arkansas Ambulance Association. We met up with him at a recent ambulance Expo in Little Rock.
"In our aspect, it takes away from where we need to be, there are people out there who need us every minute and when we're out on one of those kinds of calls, somebody is getting left out," Ward said.
Ward can't recall a death because of an abuser but says delays happen and it hurts especially rural area, like Yell County.
"We're going to answer that call but that next truck or unit may be 15 miles away instead of the Metro Area where it's 10 minutes or five minutes away," Ward said.
It's a situation Ward says may turn around when the economy improves. Federal health care reform is trying to help too.
"They are encouraging collaboration among all healthcare providers to find ways to provide the services to the people that need the health care, but to do it in maybe non-traditional ways," Ken Kelley said.
They are ways like community para-medicine programs, according to Ambulance Association Board Member Ken Kelley.
"Just to use industry buzz words, "fly cars" or sprint cars" in which they send out a qualified, trained, advanced practitioner to make an assessment on the patient and then provide them more information on what services they may need and the resources to do that," Kelley said.
Kelley says that's still a ways out for Arkansas, but the state's looking into it. For now, Ward says, "Think about what you're taking away from either your mother, grandmother, your brother or your sister, whatever."
And Traylor says, "I think if people will just be a little bit more conscious about what's going on before they actually call an ambulance, why are they calling, who it for is, it would help us out tremendously."
And keep the response to those callers who truly need it.
Ward says his EMS service never gets a dime from the abusers. Kelley says there are strict state and federal guidelines over the medical necessity of the ambulance ride. And if the ride doesn't meet them, ambulance companies get no reimbursement.
Other ambulance companies report abusers using the system to get food out of a hospital visit or simply a ride somewhere. There's also concern over the fuel and manpower utilized for these calls, eating into ambulance company budgets.
Now for those people using the ambulance for the right reason, there are some things you may not realize about a service company's abilities. MEMS of Little Rock gave us this Top Five List of why you should call 911.
- An ambulance company can offer instruction; paramedics can guide you through CPR or tell you how to stop someone's bleeding or handle a baby delivery.
- An ambulance will have the first-line response drugs for a victim; they're basically "married" with an emergency room.
- An ambulance is the safest means of transportation in getting to the hospital; helps you avoid a crash and stay focused on your loved one needing the help.
- Ambulance providers communicate with the hospital; they can let them know what's going on and shorten your time getting help at the emergency room.
- Ambulance providers know in real time what the capacity is of a hospital; so if the one you want to go to is slammed, they'll take you to one with room to help. Ambulance providers also know in real time the medical capabilities of the hospital; so paramedics know what specialties are available at the time of the call.