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Officials disagree on possible inaccuracies in Pinellas EMS study

County Administrator Bob LaSala rolled out a preliminary report last month on Pinellas' emergency medical services system along with promises that he would take the report to the people for the next 60 to 90 days.

But more than 30 days have passed, and county officials have been more tangled in trying to correct errors in the report than in selling it to the community. Now one county commissioner says LaSala is weighing his choices, which include amending it, having a peer review of the report, or scrapping it and starting over.

"Basically, as I understand it, he is still reviewing the preliminary study and determining if he is going to move forward with that," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "One of the options would be to start all over again."

Welch said he and LaSala talked about some of those options during a private meeting last week.

LaSala said Friday that he discusses the "full range of options" when talking with commissioners but that doesn't mean he's ready to toss the report aside and start over.

"I'm not contemplating that choice at this point," LaSala said. "Am I looking at or contemplating starting over, or a peer review or a whole different approach? No."

LaSala said he's sticking to his original plan of double checking the report and then taking it to the people.

"We're checking and cross-checking data. We're checking and cross-checking analysis," LaSala said. "When we believe it's bulletproof and airtight, we'll get out in the community and do what we said we'd do."

LaSala denied that he's having to spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring the report is accurate.

"I would be doing this with any report on this subject with any consultant," he said. "I expected I would spend a lot of time vetting and checking and cross-checking because of the significance and import of this study and the criticality of it in the community countywide."

The county agreed in December 2009 to pay $130,000 to Mic Gunderson's Integral Performance Solutions to study the county's EMS system and suggest ways to make it more financially efficient. The study was originally due in July but Gunderson missed the deadline. He also missed subsequent deadlines, but turned over a preliminary report on Jan. 20. So far, the county has paid him $113,750.

The main recommendation in the preliminary report is to change the way the county funds EMS service so that it pays for only one paramedic on a fire engine. Currently, the county pays for two paramedics on rescue trucks in some districts. A rescue truck is the vehicle that resembles an ambulance.

Gunderson estimated the change would save county taxpayers up to $15.8 million a year, but critics say it would merely shift the cost from county taxpayers to those in the individual fire districts who would see their property taxes go up.

A bigger problem is in the report itself — the raw data seemed to be faulty.

"We looked at the data," Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis said. Lewis is head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association and was speaking of the group's efforts. "We feel it was a little inaccurate in a number of places."

So inaccurate, Lewis said, that the chiefs have declined to comment on the report as a whole because it can't be relied on. Those errors ranged from funding amounts, to the number of calls each department answers, to the number of vehicles/paramedics the county pays for.

Without good information, Lewis said, it's impossible to determine what the effect might be.

Welch agreed that the report has credibility issues.

"It's a problem in terms of confidence," he said. "We've got to have a report that we've got confidence in and that the community has confidence in if we're going to make significant changes."

Welch said that's an issue LaSala is grappling with. And while LaSala might not be ready to toss the report, it's one of the choices.

If the county does have to start over, Welch said he'd like to see a study that looks at the entire system — both fire and EMS.

"You can't separate the EMS and the fire. At the end of the day, whatever we do in EMS to make that service whole is going to impact fire," Welch said. "I think consolidation has to happen. That's the 500-pound gorilla in the room."

That would likely take action from the Legislature and a vote of the people, both of which would take time. That's time that would be added to the time for a new study. But the county is facing a financial crisis in EMS now — a $16 million shortfall this year and reserves that will run out in 2013.

Those are facts commissioners have been dancing around the past few budget years, using reserves to patch the holes rather than massively raise taxes. But Welch conceded that can't keep happening.

"Time is running out for us to keep applying these Band-Aid solutions to get from year to year," Welch said.

And a report that took a long time and contained a number of mistakes did not help the situation.

"The quality is not what I expected it to be," Welch said. "There are lessons to be learned from the way this was handled."

Officials disagree on possible inaccuracies in Pinellas EMS study 02/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 5:05pm]
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