County says change in EMS transport could cost taxpayers millions

9:43 PM, Oct 17, 2011   |    comments
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CLEARWATER, Florida -- It can be a car crash or a heart attack at someone home, but it's always a life and death situation when a call goes out for emergency medical services. Now, firefighters in Pinellas County are putting forward a plan they say will make those services more efficient and save taxpayers money.

County officials, however, aren't so sure. They say the opposite will happen and it will cost taxpayers a bundle.

For more than 20 years in Pinellas County, firefighter paramedics have been the first responders to a medical emergency. Then a private ambulance service, Sunstar, transports the patient to the hospital to free up the firefighters.

"We can take on the capability for transport," says City of Lealman Fire Captain Jim Millican. He points to a majority of the fire departments throughout the state that act as first responders and then transport the patient to the hospital if necessary.

"We show up with a rescue truck and we are capable of transporting a person to the hospital, but by law we can't. We have to wait for a private transport company to transport them. So by the time they show up at the house, we would be delivering you to the doctors," says Captain Millican.

Those pushing for the firefighter transport plan say it will actually save money. Those opposed claim it is a push by the unions to hire more governmental employees. You be the judge as you decide which side is correct. Keep in mind the average cost of a Sunstar paramedic including benefits is $58,000 a year. Compare that to the average cost of a firefighter paramedic: $98,000 a year.

Those who oppose the plan say the increase of government employees and new equipment makes the firefighter transport plan $25 million a year more expensive.

"That proposal, that's pretty expensive. We're talking about adding more people, more staff, and more equipment.  Someone has to pay for that and that's where my concern is," says Clearwater City Manager Bob Horn.

But those in favor of the plan maintain hiring more firefighters would be up to each individual city.  "They could if they wanted. Our plan doesn't require it," says Capt. Millican, but he concedes it could open the door for more firefighters.

More firefighters mean more cost to taxpayers and that's why not every fire department in the county supports changing the system. For example, the St. Petersburg Fire Department takes the position that the single responder and transporter system is a credible model to do business, but it can't endorse the plan right now. Why? Because if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"The system doesn't have to change in its design. It's actually a very efficient, effective, and economical system, but there seems to be a political desire to change the model on how we do business," says Steve Knight with the St. Petersburg Fire Department.

Knight is not alone in feeling there's something political afoot. "This amounts to politicizing a process that doesn't need to be politicized and it is very tough to go against the unions because they are organized," says St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield.

Capt. Millican points out he is not a union member, but adds the firefighter union strongly supports his proposal. But even he has to admit the current system works. "I can't say the system is necessarily broken, but we can do it faster, better, and cheaper by putting it into fire transport," he says.

But area hospitals are a little nervous about the proposal. Glenn Waters, the president of Morton Plant Mease Health Care, wrote a letter stating: "I applaud the firefighter's goal of cost reduction, but I am concerned the plan would result in higher cost and erosion of service levels."

The county is now in a position where they have to decide if they want to ditch a 20-year-old system that has a 96 percent satisfaction rate or roll the dice on a new system that could cost $25 million more or save taxpayers $2 million.

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