Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue is proposing charging for emergency medical calls resulting from illegal drug or alcohol activity that do not result in transporting someone to a hospital.
Deputy Fire Chief Rich Elliott met with members of the Kittitas County Community Network and Coalition on Monday about the proposal. The coalition coordinates substance abuse and injury prevention efforts across the community, and includes parents, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment professionals and other community members.
Elliott said people who are taken to the hospital already are paying a fee, and 70 percent of KVFR’s emergency medical service budget comes from those fees, with the rest from fire district tax revenue. People who aren’t taken to the hospital don’t pay.
Ambulances respond to every incident, even if the caller contacts 911 later to cancel the call, he said, and responders can’t leave until a call is complete.
In the case of canceled calls or calls where a patient refuses service, the fire department still incurs a cost for staffing, equipment use and staffing again to cover the first ambulance in case of another call.
By instituting a $250 fee, the district might be able to recover some of the money lost from payroll and equipment use, he said, and maybe deter some misuse of the system.
“As the community grows or as the use of 911 system grows, we basically have to build response capabilities in front of that, and it’s extremely expensive,” he said.
Last year, 49 percent of alcohol or drug related calls resulted in a transport. That year, the department had more than 1,200 situations where crews were assigned to more than one call, for an average of four concurrently running calls daily.
“Virtually every call we have generates an overtime expense,” he said.
Group doesn’t support
The community network members present voted unanimously against the proposed fee.
Members cited problems with targeting groups unfairly or discouraging people who need 911 from calling for help.
“We’re just working from a world where people don’t want to call anyway,” said Kim Hitchcock, a coalition member who works with heroin users.
Other members proposed the hypothetical situations of someone under 16 injuring themselves on a bicycle without a helmet or someone getting in a wreck without wearing a seatbelt.
Elliott said he hadn’t thought of those, the latter of the two because they often end in a fatality.
“To me it’s just a really slippery slope to charge for non-transport calls,” coalition member Liz Whitaker said. “If you’re going to charge for non-transport calls you should charge it to everybody, it seems to me.”
Member Michele Cawley said she already has trouble getting parents of children with peanut allergies to call 911 without adding confusion over fees.
Elliott said the department looks at multiple means to save money on calls, like working to prevent falls among seniors by helping with home lighting or getting them in touch with Meals on Wheels.
“From our perspective, we’re not looking for an EMS system to even come close to touching the segment of the population that needs our services,” Elliott said. “We’re trying to kind of pick off the ones that so clearly fall outside the guidelines we could be safe.”
KVFR already recovers some money for calls related to illegal activities. If someone decides to light his car on fire in his front yard, Elliott said, he’ll get billed for the fire call on top of a Department of Ecology fine.
Elliott said a good share of the no-transport calls come from Central Washington University and local law enforcement.
The policy for resident assistants and others on campus probably dictates calls for an ambulance too often or too quickly, he said.
For instance, he said one can assess whether someone is dangerously drunk by checking three things. If the patient can walk, can form sentences and hasn’t drank in at least an hour, he’ll probably be OK. If one of those is missing, there could be trouble.
“I believe that this is one of the possible positive outcomes of this,” he said. “We could sort of work cooperatively with CWU and a couple of the law enforcement agencies to sort of put in place some very, what I consider to be safe, benchmarks to hit for people.”
Elliott also said it’s conceivable the school could tap the 50-some students certified as EMTs on campus at any given time, and have them on call to respond to incidents that might not be full-blown emergencies before bringing in ambulances.
“CWU does a fairly good job of managing most of those impacts so I don’t want them to come off as the bad guy,” Elliott added. “They’re supposed to advocate for their students, they’re supposed to look out for that stuff.”