Ohio county leaders balk at referring 911 callers to social service agencies
County commissioners worry that it could interfere with EMS workers’ medical duties or intimidate elderly people into not calling 911 in a real emergency
By Dean Narciso
The Columbus Dispatch
DELAWARE COUNTY, Ohio — When paramedics respond to a call from an elderly person, they sometimes find someone who is confused or uncomfortable but not with a medical emergency.
“The complaint may be a headache or toothache or back pain,” said Delaware County EMS Chief Mike Schuiling. “While it may not be an emergency, the caller believes it to be an emergency. Sometimes, they just need groceries.”
Delaware County EMS wants to train its workers to refer such people to mental-health agencies, social workers or nursing homes. But county commissioners worry that that could interfere with EMS workers’ medical duties or intimidate elderly people into not calling 911 in a real emergency.
“They might quit calling because they might have heard of someone who called 911 and ended up in a nursing home,” Commissioner Ken O’Brien said at a recent meeting.
The proposed partnership between EMS and the county’s Council for Older Adults would assign a council staff member to a patient during certain non-emergency 911 ambulance runs to provide them with options, said Bob Horrocks, the council’s executive director. The staff member would be assigned to an EMS station where people who didn’t need medical transport would be taken with their permission.
One goal is to get help for people who call 911 frequently but don’t have medical emergencies.
“We’re not in the business of putting people in nursing homes,” Horrocks said. “We’re there to provide advice and options and services.”
O’Brien conceded that the program likely would help people. But he also worries that patients’ private medical information could be illegally shared with non-EMS workers, resulting in a lawsuit. Even one inadvertent breach of private medical records could pose big problems, he said.
Schuiling said Genoa Township and the city of Delaware each have begun similar programs in the past year with no problems. And Upper Arlington’s StayUA program is considered a model.
Columbus paramedics offer patients nonmedical help by referring them to Columbus Public Health, said Firefighter Brian Evans, who works with EMS quality control.
Schuiling said he was surprised by the commissioners’ decision to pull the item from the agenda for future consideration.
“I expected it to pass with no issues,” he said.
So did Cindy Farson, the director of the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging, which oversees an eight-county region, including Delaware.
“I don’t think it’s that overwhelming of a concern,” she said of the commissioner’s issue with medical records. “Your chances of (paramedics) calling adult protective services for cases of severe neglect aren’t any less.”
The program would be funded for a year through grants from the Council for Older Adults and would then find other funding, said Schuiling, who plans to bring the proposal back.
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)