AUSTIN -- A KVUE Defenders investigation triggers changes within Austin-Travis County’s EMS system that could save taxpayers money and improve response times.
The issue involves a staggering number of calls for ambulances at two homeless shelters, the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). Both are located downtown Austin between E. 7th and E. 8th Streets.
T. Martinez, who often sleeps at the ARCH, says he sees EMS respond at both shelters daily. “Everyday, about four or five times a day,” Martinez explains.
Martinez admits to calling four or five times for an ambulance himself for stomach issues. "I keep having abdominal pain," he contends.
The KVUE Defenders found the city block that contains the two shelters is the number one area Austin-Travis County EMS responds to, sending nearly 3,000 ambulances there since 2010.
From 2010 to 2012, transports to the hospital from the shelters increased 39 percent.
“It's not shocking to me. I see it every day," said Mitchell Gibbs, the director of First Steps, the organization that runs the ARCH.
Gibbs says the ARCH was built to accommodate 100 beds. It now sleeps 215.
"There seems to be something going on here,” John Egan told KVUE last week. He works downtown near the shelters and called the Defenders after seeing what he considered a high number of ambulances.
"It's a concern of mine that we take care of the homeless population, but do so on a cost effective, efficient manner,” said Egan.
According to EMS records, 66 percent of EMS calls to the shelter are considered non-emergencies. That means most calls don’t necessarily require ambulances.
Audio recordings provided by EMS echo the figures. One caller requested an ambulance for a sprained ankle. Another caller asked dispatch to send an EMS crew because “his stomach hurts.”
EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez says some callers use ambulances as free taxi rides to the hospital. "I've heard of at least two cases where when we transport someone, and they arrive, they don't even go inside,” said Rodriguez.
The chief is also concerned the high number of calls to the shelters could impact emergency responses to other areas of the city.
“There's a possibility that someone else is gonna have another emergency somewhere else and we're still in the process of moving units. It may take a little longer to get there," contends Rodriguez.
After reviewing KVUE’s findings, Chief Rodriguez now plans to implement a pilot program to staff EMS around the ARCH and Salvation Army area on a more full time basis. Instead of using ambulances, crews would be assigned smaller response vehicles.
It cost the city money each time it sends an ambulance. Since 2011, responses to the ARCH and the Salvation Army have cost taxpayers more than $768,000, which includes unpaid bills to EMS and reimbursements to Medicaid and Medicare.
"That has to change. It's continuing to increase. It's a pattern that's not sustainable," explains Chief Rodriguez.
Gibbs hopes the pilot program works because it will also give paramedics an opportunity better know the health issues facing the homeless.