ST. PETERSBURG — County commissioners were shocked and angered last week to discover that the city of St. Petersburg wants the Legislature to let it opt out of the countywide ambulance service plan.
St. Petersburg's move comes at a time when it appeared that Pinellas County and the cities had temporarily set aside their differences while studies are conducted to find a possible permanent solution to the rising delivery costs for emergency medical services.
"It just seems like a couple of weeks ago we settled the first round of this," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "This is disappointing."
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala was similarly bewildered by the city's move, saying, "I agree, this is crazy. . . . It's unbelievable."
County commissioners voted unanimously at Tuesday's meeting to oppose any move by St. Petersburg to opt out of the ambulance system. Allowing that, they said, could destroy the entire system.
But St. Petersburg fire Chief James Large said that's not what the city wants.
"This is not an attempt to fracture the EMS system . . . (to) make St. Petersburg an island," Large said.
Besides, Large said, the proposal is simply an idea the city has floated to members of the legislative delegation to see if they are receptive. The idea, he said, had not even gone before other St. Petersburg boards. And the goal, he said, is to find a way to deliver services more efficiently and economically.
Under the current system, the county's 19 fire departments provide emergency medical services. But they rarely transport patients to the hospital. That's left to Sunstar, which is owned and operated by the county. The county then bills the patient for the ride. The idea is to get the fire paramedics back on the road as quickly as possible to be ready for another emergency.
St. Petersburg wants the Legislature to pass a special law allowing it to withdraw from the Sunstar system. The city's fire paramedics would take over transportation of emergency patients to the hospital. They would also take nonemergency patients to hospitals and doctors offices when needed. St. Petersburg would bill the patients for the ride.
The hospital transport is the only thing that would change, Large said. The city would remain part of the automatic aid system and be available to run calls for other departments when necessary. Likewise, other departments would continue to run calls for St. Petersburg when it needs help.
The proposal is similar to those St. Petersburg made earlier this year when the county and departments were negotiating the amount of EMS funding each department would receive. St. Petersburg suggested then that having it transport patients would save money and be more efficient.
But county officials rejected that argument, saying, among other things, that it is unworkable and confusing. How, for example, would St. Petersburg handle transport and billing when it answered a call outside of its district? Would Sunstar still have to go to those calls? And it's unclear how response times would be affected if fire paramedics are tied up transporting patients to the hospital.
With those, and other questions unanswered, the county reached a truce with all departments to allow both the state and an independent company to study Pinellas' EMS and fire system. That should be done by late next year. The findings could result in a complete overhaul of the county's fire and EMS system.
Given that background, Welch said, it doesn't make any sense for St. Petersburg to ask now for the Legislature to disturb the truce and make a drastic change to a system that's already being scrutinized. It's best, he said, for St. Petersburg, the county and the other fire districts to continue working together to solve issues of funding and efficient service delivery.