NEW PORT RICHEY — A Pasco Commission majority wants to turn over some public ambulance services to the private sector.
On a 4-1 vote this week, the commission approved an amended ordinance to make it easier for the private sector to get into the non-emergency transport business in Pasco County. The vote came despite warnings from Commissioner Ted Schrader that losing the $1.2 million in annual revenue to private companies could translate to future property tax increases in the EMS budget or delay adding county ambulances to three fire stations that do not have them due to cost.
He was overruled by a commission majority that included two lame ducks in their penultimate meeting, Commissioners Pat Mulieri who is retiring and Henry Wilson who lost his re-election bid in the August primary. Wilson has been the strongest supporter of the change, saying it should improve emergency response times for county ambulances. Private vendors echoed that sentiment, but nobody provided documentation to substantiate that claim.
The debate surrounded the county's monopoly on inter-facility transfers involving patients on cardiac monitors or IV drips in advanced life support ambulances staffed by at least one paramedic. The non-emergency calls usually entail delivering patients between hospitals or from a hospital to hospice.
There were plenty of numbers to digest from past debates, though little hard data was presented this week. County staff has said the calls, roughly five a day, account for 3.5 percent of the workload for county ambulances, but generate 11 percent of the rescue budget revenue, largely through insurance billings. They said county response time to these calls has dropped from more than two hours to 29 minutes and that response times to emergency calls within the county's 25 districts is 6 minutes and 51 seconds, a 24-second improvement from three years ago.
The company seeking the change, Medfleet, has said the non-emergency runs account for up to 12 percent of the time ambulances are in service because of time-consuming trips to out-of-county locations that can take up to three hours round trip.
"This is not privatization," said Andrew Williams, general manager of Medfleet. "This is just breaking up a monopoly, a government monopoly.''
Schrader, and initially, Commissioner Jack Mariano, stated their strong opposition.
"This is going to do nothing but delay your ability to put ambulances in those (empty) stations,'' said Schrader. "You're allowing some private providers to cherry pick the best business.''
"I am of a mind-set that we don't need to keep growing our government,'' countered Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "I kind of think of this as the beginning. I am going to look for other ways to give some of our business to private enterprise.''
Mariano had sought a delay in the ordinance, saying a recently assembled task force should be allowed to make its recommendations before the commission acted. He acquiesced and joined the majority after learning the ordinance did not take away the county's ability to dispatch ambulances to the transport calls.
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Those dispatching rules are still to be written. They could include allowing private companies to establish their own contracts with hospitals or else keeping the calls coming to the 911 center with the county dispatching the transports on a rotating basis, much like wrecker services responding to accidents.
The county also still must still act on the applications from Medfleet and AMR which are seeking to provide the non-emergency advanced life support transport services. The new ordinance will give them permission to do the transports for two years. After which, both Starkey and Mulieri said the county should have sufficient data available to determine if the private companies are improving emergency response times by county ambulances.
Schrader wasn't buying the stated push for improved public safety.
"It's all about money,'' he said.