EMS studies could spawn more questions, debate and hard decisions

Reviews of two proposals and the costs could spawn more questions and debate.

State Sen. Jack Latvala's goal in setting up a committee to look at two proposals to change the county's emergency medical services system was to get a definitive answer about the costs of each.

But committee members decided they couldn't do that without knowing if the proposals would actually work. So they're looking for a consultant to tell them.

Once that consultant finishes his work, the committee will find a second consultant to determine the cost.

But that's not going to happen this year. And the studies may not provide a definitive solution but will likely spark more debates and questions.

"I'm not thoroughly convinced that these (studies) are going to give us the answers that are going to solve the mystery," said Pinellas Suncoast fire Chief Robert Polk, the head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association.

County Commissioner Karen Seel, the county's representative on the committee, agreed continued controversy is on the horizon.

"We are going to have to have a very broad philosophical discussion of all of this," Seel said. "The devil will be in the financial details."

The dispute over the Pinellas EMS system began two or three years ago in the face of rising costs, falling revenues and a County Commission that did not want to raise property taxes.

County Administrator Bob LaSala had a consultant look at the system and came up with a plan to slash funding in part by reducing vehicles. Two firefighters came up with a proposal to cut costs by having firefighter/paramedics transport patients to the hospital, which county officials say will actually cost more than the current system.

Both sides went to the county's legislative delegation, which has the power to change the state statute that created the EMS system. Latvala, R-Clearwater, spearheaded the formation of a committee to hire an accountant to figure out whose numbers were correct.

But committee members said an accountant would need to know if the plans, as proposed, are workable. If, for example, the number of firefighter/paramedics proposed in each would be adequate. If not, then the accountant would need to know how many it would take for the plans to work.

The committee is now searching for someone to do that. Proposals must be submitted by April 12. That study could take most of this year. And, once it's in, the committee will search for an accountant to evaluate the costs.

The two reports will then come back to the County Commission. If the reports do not present a clear route, Seel, advocates forming a broad-based task force to look at the system.

And other debates loom. Some fear that, should the analysis show the fire-transport plan is unworkable or too expensive, then the idea of fire-based transport would die.

"There is a legitimate concern in my mind that if (the fire plan fails), there will be those people who will use that as a condemnation of fire-based transport," Polk said. "That is a very inaccurate and inappropriate conclusion. . . . There's just a lot of different ways to deliver the service we do."

But even if the plan is workable, some in the fire service disagree with its suggestion that firefighters transport both emergency and nonemergency patients. Some feel that fire should only deal with emergencies and nonemergency transport should continue to be handled by a private contractor.

Polk said that's just one philosophical issue the county faces.

"There are some fundamental philosophical decisions that need to be made," he said. The basic "philosophical decision is do you want to embrace fire-based transport or not?"

If the commission answered "yes" and told its staff to make it work, then "it would work," Polk said. "We could stop all the comparisons, the yeah buts and the what ifs."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.