Amherst ambulance service taxed with or without University of Massachusetts concert emergencies
AMHERST — Even though casualties of overindulgence at a concert at the University of Massachusetts last week taxed Amherst’s ambulance service, it is already straining to meet the needs of those who need medical attention, said Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson.
“Overall, our volume is way, way up,” said Nelson. “We are close to the tipping point.”
In 2011 and 2012, the two busiest years, the fire department made 4,427 and 4,265 ambulance calls, respectively, within its service area, which includes Amherst, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury and the University of Massachusetts. In January, firefighters handled 376 ambulance calls, compared to 332 such runs in January 2012.
Nelson said it isn’t fair to criticize the Mullins Center at UMass for the acts it books or to blame the university, whose Environment, Health and Safety unit assists Amherst EMTs and paramedics at concerts.
“A larger concern is how to provide adequate service to our entire service zone,” Nelson said. “That’s what we’re working on together.”
During the Feb. 21 concert by Dutch musician Tiesto, 19 people were taken by ambulance to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton for alcohol- and drug-related problems, with another 12 treated at the scene.
Nelson said the town can run a maximum of five ambulances, but due to staffing limitations often only has three in service at a time. When all ambulances are tied up handling patients, mutual aid ambulances from surrounding towns are contacted to respond to emergencies.
Less of an issue for the fire department is the cost of running the ambulances and whether the costs of taking care of concertgoers are being absorbed by Amherst taxpayers.
Each transport of a patient costs about $1,000, Nelson said.
“That can go up or down depending on what types of services we offer during the course of treatment,” Nelson said.
But a large portion of this expense will be offset by a patient’s insurance.
In the last completed budget year for which statistics were available, fiscal 2012, the town collected $2.06 million in ambulance receipts for 4,322 calls, for an average of $476 per call.
Town Manager John Musante’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal for the fire department includes $2.14 million in estimated ambulance receipts to support a $4.11 million budget.
One issue from the most recent concert was that a lot of young people were there, including those transported, who didn’t have identifications on them, making it difficult to ensure they were properly billed, Nelson said.
“Then we’re stuck. It’s a struggle to get the information we need to complete the billing information,” he said.
Musante said any revenue is secondary to helping people. “Patient care and availability to handle multiple calls at once are the overriding factors,” Musante said.
Musante said the town has found other ways to offset the costs.
Amherst receives close to $350,000 annually from UMass as part of a strategic partnership that accounts for the town’s fire and ambulance responses to campus. The neighboring towns served pay an annual assessment, and Amherst College has regularly contributed money that can be used toward ambulances. And the Mullins Center pays a fee to have the ambulances stationed at the triage center.
Though some residents may be concerned that UMass doesn’t have its own ambulance to handle incidents on campus and at the Mullins Center, Musante likens what Amherst is offering to regionalizing other services. It wouldn’t make financial sense and the end product wouldn’t be as good.
Nelson said adding a new ambulance service wouldn’t work for the system. Instead, he supports integrating UMass’ Environmental Health and Safety into the existing system.
“We’re trying to deal with the challenges together, but it will take a lot of work,” he said.