"Ambulance freeloaders" slowing down health care system

By: Morgan Downing Email
By: Morgan Downing Email

SHERMAN, TX -- When most people call 9-1-1 requesting an ambulance, it Is usually for an actual emergency. But, across the U.S. and right here in Texoma, some callers are abusing the system -- taking an ambulance ride to the emergency room, often times when they don't need it.

It's costing EMS, hospitals and taxpayers money.

Up to 25 times a day Bryan County EMS ambulances hit the road, responding to calls. Most of their calls are true emergencies, but officials say some are minor.

"We have some people in our response area that use the ambulance quite regularly," Brian Norton said.

Repeat users -- often known as "ambulance freeloaders".

"We can tell by the chief complaint when the call's toned out on where we're going and who we're going to be seeing," Norton said.

Reporter: "Because you've been there so often?"

"Because we've been there quite a bit," Norton said.

These "freeloaders" could be putting your health at risk.

When paramedics are tied up on these minor calls, Bryan County EMS director Joe Barrett says it causes delays in the system.

"Their frivolous calls may be prohibiting someone from getting the emergency care that they need," Barrett said.

"Ambulance freeloaders" call with complaints like a headache or the flu and they want to be taken to the emergency room. By law, ambulance services and hospitals cannot turn someone away if they have no alternative option.

But, many of these violators are on Medicare, state aid, or have no insurance at all.

"So, if a situation occurs where the patients requirements aren't met for reimbursement, then we are unable to collect for those," Barrett said.

So, the patient just hitched a free ride to the hospital -- saving them between $200 and $2,000, but ultimately costing the public.

Doctor Al Cardenas, the Medical Director for the emergency department at Texas Health Presbyterian- WNJ in Sherman, says about 40 percent of the patients they see in the emergency room each day have minor injuries that could have been treated outside the ER.

"It ties the most expensive resources, that being an emergency department, the highest level, with things that could be treated elsewhere, cheaply," Cardenas

"Hospitals can attest to the fact that they lose millions of dollars a month because of emergency room abuse," Grayson County Judge Drue Bynum said.

Bynum says the abuse and overflow of emergency rooms is what spurred the two local hospitals and the county to collaborate -- opening the Grayson County Health Clinic, which serves the under insured and un-insured.

"What we're starting to see is people will come into the emergency room and we now have another option," he said. "And we're able to send them down to the health clinic where they get, believe it or not, better care."

Bynum says the goal of this clinic is to provide more efficient care for patients, in a non-emergency environment.

"There's got to be some accountability. I think we've got to get out of the habit of waking up at three o'clock in the morning and just deciding I want to go to the emergency room for perhaps a stomach ache. The emergency room is by definition a place where emergencies get treated," Bynum said.

Officials say there's no easy fix to this problem, but they hope clinics like this one will begin to open in other areas.

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