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Committee approves subsidy to help private ambulances answer Milwaukee's 911 calls

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Posted at 11:49 AM, Sep 06, 2021

The city's Finance and Personnel Committee approved a $4.7 million funding package for the Milwaukee Fire Department and the private ambulances companies that help the department answer 911 calls, in an effort to address a shortage of EMTs.

Three private ambulance companies currently handle the city's less-life threatening emergency calls, called Basic Life Support (BLS). It leaves the MFD's paramedics to handle more immediate and life-threatening calls, considered Advanced Life Support (ALS).

For years, the private ambulance companies have told the I-Team they are in dire need of new EMTs, in part due to the way they are funded. The state only reimburses a fraction of what a 911 emergency transport costs when they take a Medicaid patient to the hospital.

Read the I-Team's coverage of the city's EMT shortage:

As they lose money on each call, it makes it tougher to recruit new EMTs to their companies.

Last week, the I-Team reported the state will increase the Medicaid reimbursement rate at the start of the year. It comes at a time when one of the three companies, Midwest Medical who owns Paratech Ambulance, is exiting the city's 911 agreement next month.

The heads of the two remaining companies, Bell Ambulance and Curtis Ambulance, told us they cannot handle that additional call load. To help the city has added two MFD ambulances to answer BLS calls, but MFD Chief Aaron Lipski said they are already "maxed out."

"We have to do verbal judo to explain to families and patients that no, an ambulance is coming," Lipski said. "And now I’ve got an engine or a ladder truck sitting out of service for a half-hour, 45 minutes because there are no ambulances available and we’re waiting on the one remaining paramedic unit to come across town. That's a problem."

Last Thursday, the finance committee discussed a proposal for $4.7 million to help the private companies, and cover the costs of the two MFD BLS ambulances.

Two million dollars would address the fire department's costs for the additional ambulances. The remaining $2.7 million would go to the remaining two private companies, Bell and Curtis, paid out on a per-ride basis.

"This is a huge sum of money," Lipski said. "We did not want to be loose with this money. But we are truly, truly at a point where this, as opposed to a staggering start-up cost estimate for us to do it and the unrealistic nature of the time frame for that, and the legacy costs. This amount, it is unarguable from my point of view that this will be a force multiplier that I believe will get us back to the functioning BLS transport system that for so long we have enjoyed in this city."

The subsidy lasts until the end of the year when the state's Medicaid rate increase kicks in. The city comptroller told members of the committee they intend to introduce a penalty in the new private ambulance agreement that would require them to pay back the subsidy money, should they decide to exit the 911 agreement.

The proposal passed the committee unanimously and now heads to the Common Council for approval.

The private ambulance companies and MFD have made additional strides towards filling the pool of EMT candidates in the years to come, including potential agreements with Milwaukee Public Schools and the surrounding colleges and universities.

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