Calling 911 for a toothache, a stubbed toe or a missing remote control could cost city residents $55 next year.
The City Council is considering how much to charge for what it is calling a first-responders fee, a new charge designed to discourage frivolous calls to 911.
A public hearing is tentatively planned for Jan. 23 at City Hall.
So far, the proposal would allow every resident one “free” call per year for nonemergency reasons. But nothing has been decided yet.
“The devil’s in the details,” Councilman Carl Erikson said at Monday’s council committees meeting. “It’s the right thing, but we could do it wrong.”
The main fear is that people would be charged after calling about legitimate emergencies. Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco said his EMS coordinator would search through call records to make sure that the fee was applied only in nonemergency situations.
But that will include cases where people refuse treatment after calling 911 for a legitimate emergency, he said.
Della Rocco cited multiple cases at Union College where students called 911 but refused treatment and transport to the hospital. Generally, those students were trying to hide alcohol poisoning, which could lead to punishment by parents and college officials.
“They call 911 and then refuse transport, and they are frequently abusive to fire responders, campus security and police,” he said.
In cases where paramedics provided medical assistance but the patients refused to be taken to the hospital, the patient would be charged the fee, he said.
If someone called 911 for another person who wound up not needing treatment, neither person would be charged, he said.
He offered an example in which a woman was in a car accident. Police called paramedics, but she assured them that she was fine. She would not have been charged the fee, he said.
But there are many other cases where paramedics are called for medical problems that are not emergencies. All of those patients would be charged.
Della Rocco cited one case in which a woman’s husband had suffered from a toothache for several days. Finally, at 1:30 a.m., the woman pulled a fire box alarm on the street to summon firefighters to help her husband.
He could have been treated at the ER or at a dentist at any time — there was no emergency requiring paramedics, he said.
He showed the City Council a 53-page list of residents who had called for medical assistance more than once.
“A lot of them are legitimate,” he said. “But there is a good number of people who have called 10, 12 times.”
Many of those cases included nonemergencies, he said.
“In one case, a woman called 700 times and when she got to the hospital [each time] she was promptly released,” Della Rocco said.
Any resident who called for advanced life support would not be charged the fee, he said.
Those calls include those who have symptoms of cardiac arrest and other illnesses or injuries that require immediate, professional treatment before the patient reaches the hospital.
Also exempt would be hazardous materials calls.
It is not yet clear whether patients transported for broken arms and other medical problems that are not life threatening would be charged, but Della Rocco said the focus is on those who know they don’t need a paramedic.
“The concern was people who abuse the 911 system,” he said.
Some health insurance plans will cover the fee, but some will not, he added.
The city briefly instituted a fee for nonemergency medical calls in 1999. The council eliminated the fee by the end of the year after a petition campaign against it.
Some council members seemed surprised to hear that at Monday’s meeting, but they said they intend to try it again.
The 2012 budget estimates that the city will collect $10,000 in such fees next year, which works out to roughly 182 calls at $55 each.
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