I-Team

Ambulance frequent fliers costing cities millions

Friday, May 18, 2012
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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Will an ambulance be there when you need it? Ambulance providers all over the Bay Area are dealing with frequent fliers.

A frequent flier is someone an ambulance crew picks up time and time again. Many times there is no emergency, but there is a big problem -- frequent fliers are costing a lot of money, some millions of dollars.

Captain John Cavannah has been responding to emergencies in San Francisco for 22 years. We were there when he responded to the type of call that could slow down the city's emergency response. Cavannah says the guy in this situation fits the profile of a frequent flier -- someone with no other means of medical care. Most are homeless and chronic alcoholics.

"It's very frustrating for the paramedics. You're seeing the same people. It's like, 'Hey, we're here. We picked you up, we're trying to help you, we get you to the hospital and then within the same shift you see a person,'" Cavannah said.

The San Francisco Fire Department says it has 201 frequent fliers, people who use an ambulance four or more times in one year; 50 of those use the service 10 or more times and about 20 have taken ambulance rides between 30 and 120 times.

"If there's a small number of people that are fairly often in the ambulance then it delays getting ambulances and fire trucks to fires and ambulances to heart attacks and it really slows the whole system down," said San Francisco Fire Department Captain Niels Tangherlini.

Tangherlini hears the dispatches to frequent fliers from the county 911 system. He says when crews are responding to frequent fliers' non-emergencies, they can't respond to your emergency.

"Every time you take an ambulance or fire truck out of the mix, you increase the potential for a critical emergency having a delayed response," said Tangherlini. "And a delayed response can be somebody's life."

Tangherlini is trying to start a program where paramedics go out and meet with frequent ambulance users. He says if the patients can get the health services they really need, like alcohol and drug treatment, maybe they won't keep calling 911 and costing taxpayers so much money. "Once they start going past the ER into the ICU and the inpatient unit, we're talking millions and millions of dollars."

Bruce Myers is one of Alameda County's frequent fliers, claiming he's taken 10 rides so far this year.

Noyes: You say you went 10 times this year in an ambulance. How many times last year?

Myers: Thirty-seven.

Noyes: Thirty-seven last year. That's a lot of money isn't?

Myers: We don't need to go through that.

The ABC7 News I-Team was there for one of Myers' ambulance pick-ups. This time he said he had a broken knee. "You can film this, too, because I can do this good," said Myers as he was getting on the stretcher.

Alameda County officials say they've identified 82 frequent users in the county. Since November, those 82 patients rode in an ambulance 11 times or more. The top frequent flier in Alameda County used an ambulance 73 times.

Myers: I don't like doing it.

Noyes: Why not?

Myers: Because I don't want a dying person dying because of me.

In Santa Clara County the top 20 frequent fliers took 571 ambulance rides between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year. The top user there was in the back of an ambulance 74 times in six months -- that's about once every three days.

"There are parts of the system that are not working and I think, clearly, this is one of them," said San Francisco's homeless czar, Bevan Dufty. He believes the solution is wet houses. Modeled after a similar project in Seattle, Dufty says wet houses give chronic alcoholics a safe place to live and drink. It gets them off the streets and out of ambulances. "We want to have emergency services available when people need them and not to see them become sort of either a caretaker or just moving individuals around within the system."

Dufty says wet houses will open in San Francisco next year. Both Alameda and Santa Clara counties are working on their own programs to stop frequent fliers. All the programs focus on getting these users out of ambulance so emergency response is not delayed and costs can come down.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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