14 News Special Report: ER Line Cutters - 14 News, WFIE, Evansville, Henderson, Owensboro

14 News Special Report: ER Line Cutters

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Have you ever had to wait several hours in a hospital's emergency room? 

The long wait might be because someone cut in front of you. Officials say ER line cutters are bogging down the system. In turn, costing you money and making you wait for an ambulance, all because people simply don't want to wait in line.

It's a problem that's rearing its head in the Tri-state. Ambulance abuse- but to be more specific, using ambulance services to cut lines in emergency rooms. 

"When somebody calls 911, it's truly an emergency to them, but other people may look at it and say that is not an emergency," paramedic Ryan Fugate said.

Officials at various Tri-State EMS services agree that 25 percent of their calls everyday are non-emergency runs.

"I'm not going to explain to them this is abuse of an ambulance because that's not my position to state," Fugate said.

Hospitals say if you're trying to cut lines to get into the ER faster, coming in with lights and sirens won't work.

"I think that this is an important message for people to hear is that when you present to an emergency department regardless of your mechanism of arrival," said Jerold Blackburn, the Director of St. Mary's ER Services.

According to the National Center of Health Statistics, about 50 percent of the nationwide 90 million emergency visits are unnecessary.

How thin are these runs stretching the EMS system?

In the Tri-State, Muhlenberg EMS services average 350 runs a month, with only two to three ambulances available on an average day.

Owensboro has nearly 1,300 runs a month, all those calls covered by six daily ambulances.

It's the same for Henderson and Ohio Counties. They see hundreds of runs over large distances covered by minimal ambulances.

In all 550 square miles of Hopkins County, three ambulances are on duty. Officials with the Kentucky Ambulance Providers Association agree that each run, takes about 45 minutes to an hour.  

EMS directors say non-emergency runs pull ambulances from coverage areas, and if back-up crews have to be called, it could add five to ten extra minutes before an ambulance arrives at your door.

"The problem is probably bigger in the urban areas. The difference is the urban areas are in a better position a lot of time to deal with it more so than rural EMS services, where we have a smaller population in a larger square miles. So in turn, we cover a bigger area with less resources," said Jim Duke with the Kentucky Ambulance Providers Association.

Frequent fliers abusing the system are also abusing the pocketbooks of EMS and the taxpayer.

"We've had several patients throughout the years that have called many times, sometimes two to three times a day. We've had some patients that have called in excess of 100 times a year," said Jamie Harden, the Owensboro EMS Director.

Local EMS directors agree that each run, depending on distance, costs between $350 to $475. 75 percent of the runs are paid by Medicare or Medicaid. 

While Medicare runs reimburse ambulance services almost 100 percent, Medicaid runs only pay about 25 percent of the actual cost.

"I know recently there has been 300,000 more people in Kentucky added to the Medicaid roles as a result of the managed care and the new healthcare initiatives at the federal level. These folks coming on board put an additional strain on the program, and at a reimbursement rate that's way below our costs," Duke said.

Who's picking up the tab with these non-emergency runs? Taxpayers end up paying $250 to $350 of non-emergency Medicaid runs, even more for non-insured runs.

Paramedics are not saying don't call 911 in an emergency, but they are asking people to use the ambulance services more wisely. So when you need an ambulance...one is nearby, and could save your life. 

"We're down to one truck and we have to send an ambulance out for a non-emergency run that could have been handled by other means. Then an emergency run comes in while their transporting to the hospital, yes that is a problem with that service. It's all across the nation," said Troy Walker, the Director of Muhlenberg EMS.

EMS directors want people to know they will never deny you a run or deny you their best services, but just use them wisely so they are available and close the next time you pick up the phone and call 911. 

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