Pinellas firefighters want to transport patients & want Sunstar out

12/01/11 Janelle Irwin
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Emergency response services in Pinellas County could be facing serious budget cuts. At a meeting yesterday in Pinellas Park, the Pinellas Legislative Delegation reviewed two local bills that could cut costs while still maintaining service levels.

One proposed bill would allow local fire departments to transport patients to the hospital instead of utilizing Sunstar, the private company currently contracted through Pinellas County. It was dubbed the Sanford – Millican bill after its founders, Lieutenant Scott Sanford and Captain Jim Millican. Millican says the county’s proposal, one that would continue contracts with Sunstar, isn’t the cost-saving idea it’s cracked up to be.

“Well it’s presented as a way to save money. Really what it does is it shifts costs from the county on to the cities and the districts. It will save the county, but what it does not do is save the taxpayers money. We’re in the situation that we’re in because of the down economy. There’s no doubt about it. Property values have dropped and we understand that. But rather than make wholesale cuts, we think this is the opportune time to evaluate our system, find efficiencies and improve the system where we can while being more fiscally responsible to the taxpayers rather than just shifting cost from one agency to the other.”

But County Administrator Bob LaSala, claims his opposing plan will save the county 20 million dollars. Part of that savings, he says, comes from a gap in overall cost of employees.

“The difference being the average of $98,000 which is what we experience in terms of total compensation for an ALS in Pinellas County, firefighter/paramedic in Pinellas County, verses $58,000 through the private company, total comp.”

Based on the turnout of citizens supporting fire department transport of patients, LaSala might be headed for an uphill battle. In a crowd of about two-hundred, not one person spoke. Awake the State’s Chuck Terzian wasn’t able to present at the meeting due to time constraints, but said Sunstar wasn’t able to meet the EMS needs of Pinellas County residents during a hurricane.

“They stopped providing medical services or emergency response services when the sustained winds reached 40 miles per hour. That’s just because that’s within their company policy. Whereas the city of St. Petersburg has a different policy and they didn’t end up stopping service at all. And so in our time of greatest need, the for profit company having different policies not accountable to the people, ended up not being there for us.”

LaSala said the Sanford – Millican plan would require fire departments to hire new staff, costing them more money. But Sanford said implementing it could eliminate 166 firefighter positions countywide. Olivia Allan of the organization Fight Back Florida is concerned about that too. She doesn’t think a private for-profit company should handle healthcare.

“We’re pulling more and more money out of the local economy where we need it most. Our local firefighters have shown time and time again that they’re reliable, they’re well trained and they’re fast. Firefighters are usually the first on the scenes in incidents minutes before Sunstar ever arrives and I believe that since they’ve already shown that that we should continue using them for that service.”

The city of St. Petersburg is vested in the outcome of these two opposing bills. St. Pete City Council member Steve Kornell said the county’s proposal to retain Sunstar would cost his city 7.2 million dollars and leave officials there with only two options; raise taxes or get out of emergency response all together.

“The gentleman from Paramedics Plus stated that they have a 23% per year turnover rate. Our public paramedics, our public employees, our fire department do not have one out of four quitting every single year. And so I think that’s important. And they said, ‘well, they’re perfectly qualified’, which they are, they have the credentials. But it’s like when you go to have a surgery, do you want the brain surgeon that’s new, that just graduated from college. He has a credential. But are you going to have him do the brain surgery or are you going to have one that has years of experience and has done a bunch of the surgeries. And I think it over time will degrade the profession in our county and I think it’s just a bad idea.”

The Pinellas Legislative Delegation couldn’t reach a decision about which of the two bills to support. They said there are too many differences in the financial benefit each boasts. Instead, the delegation voted unanimously to have a nationally recognized outside agency evaluate the costs associated with each bill. That vote came with a timeline of just over 6-months.

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