911 Frequent Flyers: A burden to Lexington firefighters

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - They are the answer to an emergency. They are highly trained to provide critical care to anyone who calls for them. They may be a last chance to save a life, or deliver a new one. They may even be a help to someone who has no one.

"Every truck in Lexington has individuals within their district that we know exactly who it is once we get the call. And we know what the call is going to be for," said acting officer Jason Neil of EC 10.
He and his crew make up one of the ten ambulance crews running full time in Lexington. We joined them for a couple of hours at the beginning of their routine 24- hour shift. It's a job, though, that's anything but routine, except for one aspect.

Firefighters call them frequent flyers: those that call for reasons that may not constitute an emergency to most. According to data gathered by our partner, the Lexington Herald-Leader, about 25% of all EMS runs are never billed. Why? A patient has to be transported the hospital to be billed. Meaning, about a quarter of the time, ambulance calls don't warrant a hospital visit. We were with EC 10 for a couple of hours. We went on three runs. None ended up needing a trip to the emergency room. The last call was for a person needing Band Aids.
"It doesn't necessarily matter what my opinion is of the run. We have to make it. And when they call, you have to take them to the hospital," Neil said.

"Frequent flyers is one of the biggest problems in the community. But there is no solution to it," said Battalion Chief Brian Wood.
Because what's an emergency to one person, may not be to another.
"Some people are confused. They don't have anyone else. That still constitutes an emergency."

And with a system set up to answer calls, no matter what, the scale of what's an emergency has a wide range--all are acceptable.
"This frequent flyer issue is touchy because we in no way want to effect the people that need us," Wood said.
"Every ambulance in every county in every state has their frequent flyers. Those that when the tone goes out and they give an address, you can already finish your report. You're done by the time you get there."
Chief Wood says his ambulance fleet averages 100 to 125 runs a day. Probably 25%, he says, would fall under the frequent flyer category.
"We have people we will literally transport to the hospital, they will check out of the hospital, call us from a payphone down the street to take them to another hospital because they didn't like the treatment they got there."

The Herald- Leader analysis also uncovered, of the ones that are billed, meaning patients are transported to the hospital, a little more than half actually paid. In the past four years, more than $20 million dollars has gone uncollected after a patient has taken a ride in an ambulance.

"Is there education that you can do to educate the public about what is an emergency and what is not? Not that we're come up with because everyone's kind of different," Wood said.

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