SALT LAKE CITY -- The debate over health care reform has raised the issue of people "misusing" emergency rooms - going to the ER for treatment because the ER can't turn them away if they don't have insurance or can't afford to pay. But what about people who misuse 911?
The National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians estimates 20 percent of all medical aid calls in 2008 were "non-life threatening," meaning they didn't require a paramedic. Based on that figure, the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) believes local agencies may spend $246,000 just dispatching to non-emergency calls, let alone the added cost if the response includes an ambulance ride or other service or treatment.
Scott Freitag, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Fire Department, believes the current economy is at least partially driving the call volume.
"Maybe they don't have their own personal physician; maybe they don't have a clinic that they can go to; maybe they don't have a ride to get to where they need to go, like a hospital or a doctor's office," he said.He believes that 20 percent figure may actually be closer to 50 percent in Salt Lake City itself. The Utah 911 Committee says depending on your location, non-emergency calls to 911 could be anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of the total number of calls that come in.
Despite the call volume and the expense, neither VECC nor departments like Salt Lake City Fire ever choose to not respond to a call for help.
"We're always reluctant to say it's an abuse of the system or a misuse of the system, because we really don't know until the paramedics are able to go on the scene to determine if it's a true emergency or not," Freitag explained.
In other words, in a cost-benefit analysis, departments can't afford not to respond, in the event someone truly does need their help.
VECC dispatches nine fire agencies in the greater Salt Lake area when calls come in to 911. VECC officials say the calls they've received range from people with headaches to people who need a ride to the doctor's office, and even calls asking, "What time is the Jazz game?"
Non-emergency calls to 911 could be anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of the total number of calls. -The Utah 911 Committee
In the past year, VECC got 44,000 calls for medical assistance, which they immediately forwarded to the appropriate fire or EMS department, regardless of whether or the call sounded legitimate. The estimate of $246,000 or more per year charged to agencies for non-emergency calls is based on a cost to each department of about $28 per call dispatched.
VECC does not log its non-emergency calls because it doesn't make that determination, for much the same reason Freitag says Salt Lake City crews respond to all calls. But on top of the estimated 20 percent of calls that are non-emergency requests for help, VECC gets another 10 percent of hang-up calls.
In each case, Freitag says first responders walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they can't ignore a call and run the risk that someone really did need their help, but on the other, each non-emergency call threatens someone else in need.
"There may be a true emergency going on somewhere else that we're unable to get to, or it takes us longer to get to, because we're dealing with a non-emergency sort of situation," Freitag says.