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COVID pushes ambulance providers to 'breaking point'

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Posted at 10:11 PM, Jan 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-06 22:14:04-05

(WXYZ) — As the pandemic stretches into its tenth month, ambulance providers throughout Michigan and the country say their industry is at a “breaking point.”

“The status quo of what people have expected and relied upon is in jeopardy in many communities,” said Ron Slagell, CEO of Emergent Health Partners in in Ann Arbor, one of the largest EMS providers in the state.

Even before COVID-19 took hold, private EMS companies have struggled for years with meager reimbursement rates, primarily from Medicare or Medicaid, paying only fractions of what they were owed.

For a patient with Medicare, an emergency run that might cost $900 could yield a reimbursement of $300-400.

But once the pandemic began, and many avoided hospitals at all costs, emergency runs plummeted.

TRI-Hospital EMS, the largest ambulance company in Port Huron, saw a 45% decline in ambulance calls starting in March and lasting until the summer. Their revenue fell, but their expenses didn’t.

Unlike most businesses that paired down staffing to meet a smaller demand during the pandemic, EMS needs to remain constant regardless of how few calls are being made.

“The real cost of ambulance service is what we refer to as the cost of readiness,” said Ken Cummings, the CEO of TRI-Hospital EMS.

Expenses actually rose as companies made purchase of costly personal protective equipment while spending exorbitant amounts on overtime to cover the shifts of EMTs and paramedics who fell ill from the virus.

In November, the American Ambulance Association sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, saying that 911 emergency response was at a “breaking point.”

“I think you can expect more services to shut their doors, and other services to have to move into that territory,” said Maria Bianchi, is Executive Director. “That’s been happening already.”

In 2020 just in Michigan, ten ambulance providers shut their doors, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. They did not provide a reason for their closure.

Industry leaders say rules that govern reimbursement, especially during the age of COVID, have made making ends meet all the more difficult.

If an ambulance responds to a call for help, renders treatment on the scene but doesn’t end up taking a patient to a hospital, they won’t be paid a dime.

It’s become more common during COVID, as patients routinely refuse to be taken to a hospital over fear of catching the virus.

And because an ambulance will come whether you have insurance or not, EMS providers spend a small fortune every year for runs they’ll never be paid for.

In December, after pleas from industry officials, there was some good news to ambulance companies in the form of $1.5 billion in federal aid from the Provider Relief Fund. It won’t make ambulance companies whole, but providers say it will help stabilize them for now.

Still, industry leaders say that if systemic changes to reimbursement rules aren’t made, and soon, ambulance companies will begin to close.

“Someone is going to call and there’s going to be some tragic result,” said Bianci, “because our ambulance services just can’t keep up.”