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I-TEAM: Investigating Augusta EMS ambulance response times

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 7:56 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Augusta commissioners say they’re looking into complaints about delays in ambulances. Complaints that came out a month after Gold Cross sent the city a proposed contract which includes a need for more money.

I-Team’s Liz Owens investigates: Is the problem with Gold Cross or in city chambers?

“Need police fire or ambulance?” said a dispatch officer.

“I am concerned already with his vitals...but worried it’s going to make him bottom out,” said a 911 caller.

Every minute, every second, feels like eternity in a life or death situation.

“I just called at 1:35 requesting an ambulance and they’re not here yet I just want to get an ETA on their arrival,” said a caller.

“Yes, ma’am we currently have this call unfortunately I cannot give you an ETA. We have a high volume of calls, but someone should be with the patient shortly,” said a dispatch officer.

“I am his wife, and I am trying to see if they coming?” said a caller.

On April 3 four calls came into dispatch from the same Augusta address.

“It’s been over an hour,” said a caller.

“Yes, ma’am we have had a high influx of calls. I am very sorry for your wait, but I do have an ambulance on the way,” said a dispatch officer.

“This is the second time this has happened, and I done went to the commission with this this has to stop a whole hour to pick up somebody,” said a caller.

The caller’s frustration spills over in a letter she wrote to commissioners the next day.

The clerk read the letter to commissioners. The letter said, “I thought when you called 911 you were calling for emergencies and could get help in an urgent fashion” and “I am upset that it took an ambulance longer to get to my father’s home than food delivery.”

Her words spark a discussion among commissioners in the newly formed EMS subcommittee.

“Is there some kind of timestamp that Gold Cross supplies when they actually have the wheels rolling?” said a member of the EMS subcommittee.

“No sir not currently at the moment there is no data that we receive back from Gold Cross,” said a member of the EMS subcommittee.

Commissioner Ben Hasan is the Chairman of the subcommittee.

“Well, obviously there has been concerns. We have been getting calls from time to time about people making multiple calls saying maybe up to an hour before they get a response. I have had law enforcement call me on a personal level (about) ETA expected time of arrival calling provider not getting any response,” Hasan said.

The problem is commissioners don’t know if there is a problem with Augusta Richmond County 911 ambulance provider.

“We have no data no information no control from the time we turn that call over,” said a member of the EMS subcommittee.

There is also no contract. Commissioners agreed upon a moratorium of understanding or MOU instead of a contract like they had with Gold Cross in the past.

Steven Vincent is the Vice President of Gold Cross.

“We saw the success with that with open and transparency and we pushed for the exact same thing with Richmond County the reason for them not wanting that back in 2019 I can’t tell you that,” said Vincent.

He says he included accountability measures in the MOU but commissioners rejected it and nobody seems to know why.

“Discussing the current MOU that we are currently operating under I remember Gold Cross offering to put one of their dispatchers in our 911 center and that was decline. Do we know why that was declined?” said the EMS subcommittee.

The only current data available to the county is through the 911 center. All emergency calls initially come through the 911 center.

The I-Team requested the number of people in need of an ambulance who made multiple calls to 911. We found that 10 percent of the more than 10,000 callers called 911 back two, three, four, even five times within two hours of the first call for an ambulance.

“Gold Cross,” said a dispatch officer.

“I already called twice trying to see where the ambulance was?” said a 911 caller.

But the data only tells part of the story. Not every call back is due to a delayed response time and for those that are, it doesn’t always explain the factors behind the delay.

“Yes I called for an ambulance about 1:53 and I still haven’t gotten one yet,” said a caller.

“I have the call. Every hospital is full it is taking all our trucks numerous minutes to clear the hospital,” said a dispatch officer.

Our I-Team first told you about EMS delays caused by full hospitals last summer.

Meanwhile, EMS crews are being tied up for longer periods at hospitals while waiting on rooms for their patients, leaving few available ambulances for emergencies.

Is there a problem with response times?

“We never heard of a single complaint there was no mention of a complaint with the county until we presented our draft contract,” said Vincent.

Gold Cross sent a contract proposal to Augusta Richmond County in February. The commission formed the EMS subcommittee the following month.

A big part of that contract has to do with the subsidy right?

“There is a subsidy portion of the contract yes,” said Vincent.

The city of Augusta provides a subsidy to Gold Cross. It helps to cover the cost of people unable to pay for an ambulance. Richmond County provided a $1.1 million subsidy to Gold Cross six years ago. The current subsidy is about half $650,000. The same amount Columbia County gives Gold Cross.

“Part of the increase for the request all our expenses has increased tremendously and the indigent population in Augusta has also increased,” he said.

He tells us people who can’t afford to pay their ambulance bill increased by more than 60 percent in Richmond County from 2019 to 2020. According to Richmond County census data.

The I-Team also found that 20 percent of the patients who do pay are on Medicaid in Richmond County compared to only seven percent in Columbia County. Medicaid reimbursement does not cover the full portion of an ambulance ride.

“We are not discussing anything around subsidy I don’t want anything about contract negations,” said Hasan.

Commissioners say the discussion is over quality of care.

Have you asked for their response times?

“We haven’t really done a good job because the issue has been focused on that by law they are obligated to provided the service because it’s their zone we don’t own it anymore,” Hasan said.

Without a contract the county can’t really hold you guys responsible for anything. Then you have EMS council who has declined seeing the data so they are not holding you responsible. Who does hold a private company like Gold Cross responsible for care and response times and that sort of of thing?

“Well Columbia County holds us responsible. Jefferson County holds us responsible. We have response time standards we have to meet in those counties. We can be fined if we don’t meet those times,” he said.

Gold Cross’ proposed draft contract includes the provision of response times, inspection reports, training records and increasing the number of ambulances in Augusta and Richmond County. Commissioners are trying to come up with the best way to hold Gold Cross accountable. One of which Gold Cross suggested a couple years ago, software which would link 911 dispatchers to Gold Cross’ computer system.

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