What better illustration of the wasteful redundancies in the Pinellas County Emergency Medical Service than an incident Tuesday on the Bayside Bridge. Sunstar, a private ambulance service the county employs to transport patients to hospitals, was rushing an injured motorcyclist to the hospital when the vehicle's transmission failed. Following right behind was a fire department rescue unit that had responded to the original accident call. The patient was transferred from the broken down ambulance to the rescue truck and the trip to the hospital resumed.
So two expensive, fully equipped emergency vehicles had headed to the hospital when there was only one patient. It turns out the fire rescue truck had tagged along merely to provide taxi service — for a fire department medic helping out in the Sunstar ambulance who would need a ride back to his fire station.
Wouldn't calling a cab be cheaper?
The story demonstrates how it isn't just the EMS dual-response design, in which both fire department paramedics and a Sunstar transport respond to many medical calls, that makes Pinellas' system so expensive. It is also a long-term failure to scrub the system for waste and apply reason to delivery of emergency medical service.
This was to be the year when the county finally started getting a grip on EMS costs. Instead, county commissioners decided Tuesday to raise the countywide EMS tax rate. They set the maximum EMS tax rate for 2010-2011 at $0.6860 per thousand dollars of assessed taxable property — a ridiculous 17.6 percent increase over this year.
The increase would amount to only a few extra dollars a year for the average homeowner. But taxpayers should not subsidize the inefficiencies that officials have allowed to become institutionalized in the EMS system over the last 20 years.
Commissioners hinted they may lower the proposed increase in the tax rate before they take a final vote on the county budget in late September, perhaps by making cuts or using more reserve funds. To their credit, county officials already have made a few trims and have hired a consultant to advise them about alternative models for EMS. That report is due soon.
However, Tuesday's decision on the EMS tax rate raises questions about whether these commissioners have the backbone to stare down firefighters, mayors and others who support the unsustainable status quo. The proposed increase in the tax rate underscores the urgency to create a new EMS system that is efficient, affordable and practical for Pinellas County.