City has history in ambulance serviceWhen an emergency medical call comes in, Superior’s Fire Department is usually first on the scene.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
When an emergency medical call comes in, Superior’s Fire Department is usually first on the scene.
Now, Superior’s City Council is considering a proposal that would provide the full gambit of services by the fire department – from emergency medical care to transport services.
Tuesday night, the council made the final appointment to a task force that will explore that option. Brad Keseluk, a Gold Cross employee who resides in Douglas County, is the final member of the panel.
Other members appointed to the task force include Councilor Warren Bender, Steve Panger of the Superior Fire Department, rural Supervisor Kay Johnson and city Supervisor Jack Sweeney of the Douglas County Board, Dr. Robert Sellers for his medical experience and city Finance Director Jean Vito.
The seven-member task force has 90 days to determine if the city’s fire department should get in the ambulance business.
Councilor Greg Mertzig introduced the proposal after the Superior Fire Department union disputed a budget proposal that called for a smaller-than-usual increase that didn’t meet the demand of projected wage increases. The goal is to create a new revenue stream for the department by charging for ambulance services.
It wouldn’t be the first time Superior operated an ambulance service.
Councilor Ed Anderson remembers his dad working for the Superior Fire Department’s ambulance service in the 1950s.
“They had two ambulances and they were at the 18th Street fire hall,” Anderson remembers. “One was a city ambulance; the other was a county ambulance. They were old Cadillacs with the old federal sirens on them … those days were affectionately known as the ‘load and go’ days. They were ambulance attendants. They threw on a bandage or two and just loaded them onto the ambulance and the go part was to go to the hospital.”
In the mid-1960s, Douglas County took over the service after city officials decided to end service to rural communities outside Superior.
When Anderson started his career with the sheriff’s department ambulance service in 1976, the care provided for emergency medical transport was growing in sophistication, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when the county established a full paramedic ambulance service.
The ambulance service transformed to its own department at that time.
After the county experienced a levy increase of more than 50 percent in a single year in the mid-1990s, the county ended its ambulance service in favor of contracting with a private ambulance service. County taxpayers were subsidizing the patient-paid county service with more than $500,000 annually during its last three years of operation.
Mayor Dave Ross said the county’s experience is one of the factors that make him skeptical a city-run ambulance service would be in the city or taxpayers’ best interest.
“The taxpayers would be on the hook for the no-pays,” Ross said. “Right now, we have no liability if an ambulance ride is not paid for by one of their customers. There is no harm done to our budget; there is no harm to the fire department budget.”
Moreover, taxpayer’s could be on the hook for costs not covered by Medicare and Medicaid, or changes in reimbursement rates by state or federal government.
According to Gold Cross, Medicare, Medicaid and other contractual discounts result in the company discounting about 56 cents for every $1 of service provided in Superior and Douglas County as of September. When combined with nonpayment for service, the company collects about 33 cents for every $1 of service provided countywide, said Matt Will of Gold Cross.
Currently, the city and taxpayers are not obligated to fill the gap, Ross said. However, if the fire department’s ambulance service budget came up short, he said, taxpayer’s would be on the hook to cover those expenses.
In spite of his skepticism, Ross said he made his appointments to the council’s task force deliberatively in collaboration with Council President Dan Olson to give the issue a fair hearing in the 90-day time limit set by the council.
“I agree with [the council’s] thought – let’s at least look at it,” Ross said. “Let’s either put this thing to rest or do something. We need to look at it.”