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Increased ambulance use reduces EMS deficit, but cuts will still come

With Pinellas County already facing an $18 million shortage in the EMS budget, it appeared things were even gloomier when the preliminary property values came in worse than expected.

But it turns out more people are using the ambulance system, meaning more money coming in through ambulance fees. Enough, in fact, to significantly cut into that $18 million deficit.

That won't change the county's plans, however, to examine the EMS system and cut costs because officials figure the bad economic times will continue for a while.

The county's proposal to make those adjustments by shifting resources, establishing guidelines and closely monitoring EMS budgets has prompted protests from firefighters, fire chiefs and many of the 19 fire departments that the county pays to provide service. The county is also studying alternative proposals submitted by St. Petersburg, firefighters and fire chiefs.

Preliminary figures from the Pinellas County property appraiser show an estimated drop of 11.6 percent in the overall value of property whose taxes go to pay for EMS services. That drop would likely have increased the expected shortfall for the coming fiscal year, said Craig Hare, Pinellas EMS division chief.

But Hare said that the county's receipts from ambulance services look as if they will be substantially more than expected.

"Calls are up. Transports are up," Hare said Thursday.

The reasons are many, he said, ranging from the aging of the baby boomers to better education that prompts people to call for help rather than ignoring symptoms of strokes and heart attacks. Some are using ambulances multiple times. The increased use is mirrored across the United States, he said.

With an average charge of $470, the increased use adds up to about $8.1 million more than Pinellas expected. But rather than using that money to lower the $18 million shortfall, Hare said the county is essentially acting as if the shortfall was anticipated and is going ahead with its plans to reduce costs.

"We want to make sure all of the programs are financially sustainable into the future," Hare said. The county is asking "where can we safely reduce costs without impacting service?"

Possible areas include shifting resources and closely scrutinizing individual department budgets, as well as negotiating with the ambulance company, Paramedics Plus (which runs the Sunstar ambulances), to possibly decrease the price of ambulance service.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Increased ambulance use reduces EMS deficit, but cuts will still come 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 4:30am]
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