Mar 4, 2024 - News

Portland's ambulance plan to get nine months of scrutiny

Illustration of a an ambulance star-of-life symbol with the caduceus replaced by a dollar sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Frustrated by long ambulance response times and staffing shortages that could endanger lives, Multnomah County commissioners last week voted to reevaluate the Ambulance Service Plan, two years ahead of schedule.

Why it matters: The county is at odds with its sole ambulance contractor, American Medical Response (AMR), and tensions came to a head last month when AMR sent a letter to county commissioners saying they are short 60 paramedics and warning of a potential system collapse "in a matter of months."

By the numbers: Between Sept. 1, 2022, and Feb. 28, 2023, ambulances sent on life-threatening calls in Multnomah County met their contractual requirement for quick arrival only 67% of the time and were often supplemented by fire service crews.

Catch up quick: Paramedics are more highly trained and better paid than emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

  • The county's rules call for two paramedics on high-acuity calls.
  • AMR says that there is a staffing shortage and that it must sometimes send one paramedic plus one EMT on calls.
  • In a pilot program last year, AMR sent two EMTs and no paramedics on less serious calls.

The assessment is expected to take nine months and will cost $167,000.

Emergency medical service quality varies wildly around the country.

  • Multnomah County has levied $2 million in fines on AMR since last summer based on its performance.

What they're saying: "The shortage of ambulances is putting the community's lives in jeopardy," Portland Fire & Rescue interim fire chief Ryan Gillespie warned in a letter to county officials in January.

Multnomah County Commissioner Jesse Beason said supports reevaluating the Ambulance Service Plan ahead of schedule.

  • Beason wants an agreement that fire departments would send a second paramedic if AMR sends one paramedic and one EMT.
  • He pointed out AMR does not seem to be meeting contractual obligations in San Jose or in Clackamas County, where it has also been fined.

The other side: AMR has been pressuring the county to relax its two paramedic rule, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, calling on the support of fire departments from Portland, Gresham and Corbett.

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