WAVE 3 Investigates: Abuse of the EMS system

By Scott Harvey

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- When you need to get to the hospital in a hurry, you call 911. But WAVE 3 discovered, when it comes to medical emergencies, some people are taking advantage of Louisville's EMS system potentially putting those really in need at risk. WAVE 3's Scott Harvey Investigates the problem of EMS abuse.

Officials with Louisville's Metro EMS say, there are so called frequent flyers. Those who call 911 for any medical need, whether it's life threatening or not. But they aren't the real problem.

"There has been a lot of press recently, in a number of white papers that have come out nationally," said Dr. Neal Richmond, CEO of Louisville Metro EMS.

Dr. Richmond says it is true, emergency resources are limited. "So every time we send an ambulance out, that is on less ambulance that is available for the next patient."

Dr. Richmond says there were 2,400 addresses in Louisville where EMS was called at least three times, over a six month period. Those addresses accounted for more than 10,000 ambulance runs.

"To qualify this even further, many of those addresses aren't single family dwellings," Dr. Richmond explained. "Some of those are urgent centers, immediate care centers, clinics, nursing homes."

While there are a handful of people who are so called frequent flyers, the real problem is much bigger. Dr. Richmond says it's not intentional abuse of the system. Most people just have no other place to turn, because of inadequate or no health care.

"Probably 20% of the patients we care for at 911 EMS are people who have to pay on their own," Dr. Richmond said. "Which means they may not normally be able to afford normal expensive care or ambulance transport."

The average cost for those runs, $350. And if the patient doesn't have insurance, taxpayers foot the bill. But officials with Louisville Metro EMS say patients are never refused treatment, even if they can't pay.

"You can't, in an emergency department or in EMS, you can't decide who you are going to treat because of what insurance coverage they have," said Dr. Richmond.

"That's just very human," said Col. Everett Scott, Director of Operations for Louisville Metro EMS. "I think you have to respond to those and you have to be able to send the resources.

Col. Scott says it doesn't necessarily have to be an ambulance every time, "There was a medical need."

While non-emergency calls may be tough to weed out, Col. Scott says they can't make that determination until they respond to the 911 call.

"Whenever someone calls for an ambulance, obviously for various reasons, what may seem to be minor to you or I, may seem significant to the caller," Col. Scott explained. "Our mission is to support all calls."

Louisville Metro EMS officials told me they are constantly looking for ways to improve the system. They plan to educate those who depend solely on EMS as their form of medical care, on other options available. Dr. Richmond says, that would help with faster response times and shorter lines in the ER.

Online Reporter: Scott Harvey

Online Producer: Charles Gazaway