At least two Pinellas commissioners are angry over a highly paid consultant's failure to analyze some ideas to cut costs of the county's emergency medical services system in a draft report released Thursday.
"I don't believe it fully responds to the board's request for analysis of various options," Commissioner Ken Welch said of the report by Fitch & Associates.
Commissioner Norm Roche called it "a disappointing return on our $300,000 investment."
When commissioners agreed last year to hire Fitch, they told County Administrator Bob LaSala they wanted to look at several specific ideas.
One was a plan LaSala advocated that slashed costs by eliminating firefighter-paramedics and some emergency vehicles.
Another was a proposal by Lealman fire Capt. Jim Millican and Palm Harbor fire Lt. Scott Sanford to have firefighter-paramedics take all patients — emergency and non-emergency — to the hospital. Under the current system, the county pays a private, for-profit company to transport patients.
Other concepts the board wanted studied were "hybrids" from Sanford and Millican that included some form of fire transport.
One idea involved firefighters transporting emergency patients while the private company continued to transport non-emergency patients. Another would have cities and fire districts that have the boxy, transport-capable vehicles take people to the hospital while the private company continued transporting for fire departments that don't have such vehicles.
But Fitch looked only at the LaSala plan and two variations of the Sanford-Millican plans. Fitch concluded that the LaSala plan was too drastic and would increase vehicle costs. The Sanford-Millican plan, the draft report said, would overwork firefighters and would cost more if more personnel were hired to offset the increased workload.
Fitch came up with a proposal it called CARES, which has some firefighters working 14 hours a day rather than the current 24. Fitch estimates the move would save about $6.3 million, or about 5.5 percent of the $112 million EMS budget.
LaSala has repeatedly warned during the past few years that expenses are outpacing income from property taxes and ambulance fees and that the system will go bankrupt if changes are not made.
Roche said he was unimpressed by the report and Fitch's proposal. CARES, he said, is simply a watered down version of the LaSala plan.
"It's just another acronym," he said.
He added, "They just completely, obviously misunderstood or were misdirected. … I view this as a staff-written report."
Roche estimated that the county has spent more than half a million dollars over the past few years in consultants and staff time trying to figure out a solution to the high cost of the EMS system. Yet, he said, the county has nothing to show for it except some "very expensive three-ring binders" to sit on a shelf.
"By the time it's said and done, we'll be at a million bucks and we still won't have anything," he said. "It is time for the County Commission to … regain control of this entire situation."
LaSala said Fitch will make a presentation to the commission in mid July, and he said he expects Fitch will be able to explain why it did not examine the hybrid plans as the commission directed.
He was happier than commissioners with what he's seen so far.
"My first impressions are that it's thorough and it provides a lot of clarity, so I'm pleased in general," he said.
The findings need further explanation and exploration, he said, but, "I think it's going to offer me an opportunity to help guide this community to a resolution of this matter."
County commissioners Janet Long and Susan Latvala also had a more favorable view of the draft report.
"From the first blush, it seems to me to be quite reasonable," Long said. "I'm happy to see that we have some foundation for a deeper discussion that's based on something besides pure rhetoric. I think that there are some pretty clear pathways for putting this whole system on a sustainable path."
Latvala added, "I'm pleased. It confirms what our staff and our previous consultants have said. We now have the confidence to (move forward).''
The data, she said, will help in setting changes in motion. Those changes are geared toward saving money. That's been the goal all along, she said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.