Town's Partial Privatization of Ambulance Service Could Cost Residents More Say Volunteers

A plan to partially privatize a Delaware County town’s all-volunteer ambulance service has first responders concerned about costs for residents and as well as the future of their organization.

The Township of Springfield, in Delaware County, Pa., is ready to ink a deal that would remove the 65-year-old Springfield Ambulance Corps as the primary responder to medical emergencies in the town of 23,000 during peak weekday times – typically 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Instead, a crew from Crozer-Keystone Health System would be first to handle calls, with the ambulance corps becoming backup during those hours. The corps would still remain the primary responder for night, overnight and weekend emergencies.

“I’d like the residents to be aware that this is a change that may affect them, specifically with respect to what charges they should expect to pay in the future should this proposal go through,” said Kelly Sweeney, President of the Springfield Ambulance Corps.

Currently, Springfield Ambulance Corps offers residents the opportunity to make a yearly donation of $25 or more for what they call “subscription ambulance service.” Through that subscription, the corps forgives the deductible and copay costs for two ambulance runs a year. Those costs can run anywhere between $80 and hundreds of dollars depending on health plans.

More than half of the town's 8,938 households take part in the subscription service, according to the corps.

Residents who are taken to the hospital by a Crozer ambulance would not be able to have ambulance costs forgiven, according to Sweeney.

“We’ve been told by Crozer that Crozer is not legally able to waive these co-payments and deductibles,” she said.

Sweeney and other leaders of the 90-member ambulance corps says they’re concerned the reduction in service will also hurt them financially. The corps estimates the change could cut the number of calls they respond to by more than 75-percent. Such a change can also result in a drop in volunteers.

“We’d be asking volunteers to sit there for 12 hours and maybe get one call a day. On average it’s not going to be that,” she said. “The volunteers are there because they want to do something, want to be there to help people.”

The Springfield Township Board of Directors, who run the town, say the change is meant to improve service and care to residents, not to minimize the volunteer’s work.

In a lengthy statement to NBC10, officials say there’s typically only one ambulance in service during peak times. The addition of the private firm would make a second ambulance available during the busiest times.

“This decision was not done to hurt the Springfield Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but to enhance service by adding flexibility and resources,” the statement read in part. “The Board of Commissioners understands that the volunteers who serve in the Corps have some concerns about the new relationship with Crozer Keystone. The Board wants to make clear that the important service and role they play in our township is not being eliminated.”

The ambulance corps does have a second backup ambulance, which is placed in service when extra crews are available, according to Sweeney. Otherwise, it is used to cover a rig which may be broken.

Springfield officials also say the added ambulance service will cut down on the number of requests for mutual aid the town makes. Through mutual aid, ambulances from adjacent towns respond to emergency calls when the Springfield ambulance is out of service or already on a call. It takes at least six additional minutes for an ambulance to be dispatched through mutual aid, Sweeney said.

Over the past year, Springfield received more than 2,200 medical calls and for 400 of those calls crews from other towns came in to respond, township officials say.

Sweeney says she’s been requesting data on the number of mutual aid responses from township officials, but has yet to receive them. But, she said based on the data they have, the organization only missed one primary call over the past year due to a scheduling conflict. She says the other instances could be because crews were already out on a call.

Springfield officials say the Crozer ambulance contract will not cost the township or taxpayers any money. They say the service will be paid for through the patient’s insurance. If the patient’s medical condition does not require them being sent to the closest hospital immediately, the patient can choose the hospital to be taken to. Officials say this will alleviate monopoly concerns.

Officials plan to sign the contract in the coming days. The new ambulance service will be operated out of the Springfield Fire Department and is expected to begin on Jan. 1, 2014. Sweeney said the corps asked for the contract to be released to the public for comment, but that officials said that wouldn’t be possible until after it is singed.

“That’s concerning to me because they’re not being given the opportunity to go through [the contract] and make meaningful comments on what will ultimately affect them,” she said.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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