SEBRING - With the new year approaching, there are several issues Highlands County will consider in terms of cost-savings and efficiency, and one of the first of these items would be discussion on the privatization of emergency medical services.
The subject was last brought up at the Dec. 3 county commission meeting and although at the time the naysayers were in the majority, the subject of emergency medical care privatization is still very much alive for the new year.
Three private ambulance services currently provide service, mostly to transport patients to and from care homes or rehabilitation facilities to hospitals and back. However, many feel they aren't equipped or trained to sufficiently to deal with more serious and life-threatening circumstances.
Commissioner Don Elwell said Thursday that he would be in favor of looking further into the benefits of privatization but it was important to focus on "quality of service" and response time rather than dollars and sense.
Currently, Highlands County has eight EMS stations to service its 1,100-plus square miles and approximately 98,000 residents of whom about 40 percent are over 60 years old.
"To start with, I'm basically for smaller government. It's my firm belief that the privatized system can service us just as well the government can serve but at a lower cost to the taxpayer," said Dick Noel, 83, a retired new car dealer who's lived in Sebring since 1956.
The three private ambulance service companies fielding calls in Highlands County are American Medical Response (AMR), a Greenwood Village, Colorado-based company, Bradenton's West Coast Southern Ambulance Service headquartered and Positive Medical Transport, a Highlands County company.
Much of the concern with farming out service to the lowest quotes is how it would affect the quality of service and level of concern.
Tom Diaz, AMR regional general manager for west and central Florida, said the benefit of privatization is boosting cooperation between county and for-profit services. He said AMR, based in Tampa, has been servicing Highlands County for about 10 years and 11 EMR vehicles are used in the area. There are over 100 in the seven counties AMR covers.
"It's pretty much a decision of the government if they want to do it themselves or look at private options," he said. "If they would like to privatize, we would respond to an RFP (Request For Proposal)."
One of the naysayers is Commissioner Jim Brooks, a former Highlands County EMS coordinator. He said he feels the county already has "very good EMS services" and the county would end up supplementing finances to private-sector services and there wouldn't be enough revenue to make it pay off on the business end.
"We (county EMS) have the proper training; we're responsible for providing medical services," he said.
According to the Reason Public Policy Institute - a non-profit, free-market activist organization based in Los Angeles - the benefits derived from privately-owned EMS service including reducing emergency response times by 30 seconds, with 90 percent reliability; only paramedics can provide pre-arrival lifesaving instructions over the phone to 911 callers with medical emergencies; equipment and software in the dispatch/communications center is upgraded; and ambulances are replaced or upgraded more frequently.
"It is no secret that in some cases, a private ambulance provider could provide the transport component of an EMS system more cheaply than a publically-provided system. It is also known, however, that a private provider cannot optimally provide an entire EMS system more efficiently nor more effectively than a fire department," the International Association of Firefighters wrote in a 1997 report.
Although the issue has yet to be officially introduced in Highlands County, residents are already voicing their feelings.
"Positive Medical Transport has very well-trained EMTs and paramedics! And the majority of the people employed here are local! They have transported my family, and I wouldn't have it any other way! I say go private!" Ashley Huff of Sebring posted on Highlands Today's Facebook page.
Michelle Rogers-Nickerson of Sebring felt the county's demographics play a factor on who responds to emergency medical situations.
"Keep it local, especially with all the older people that live in this town and all the accidents that happened on 27, I want to know that there's going to be an actual certified EMT or paramedic to help me and not just a private transportation company and I'd hate to see all these EMT and paramedic losing (their) jobs over this," she wrote.