EMS alters service in NE Queens

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The last city EMS crew stationed in Flushing vacated its 20th Avenue home Monday to allow a Flushing Hospital crew to assume responsibility for the coverage area — a move that led one city councilman to question the city’s privatization of public services.

“Almost all of northeast Queens will be served by private ambulances now,” Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said. “The EMS we pay for out of city taxpayer dollars. The hospitals are looking to do this because they’re getting the insurance money from those ambulance pickups.”

Avella is concerned with “patient-steering,” a practice in which private hospital ambulances allegedly bring those in need of treatment to the hospital that sponsors them instead of to the most appropriate or closest facility.

But hospital and Fire Department officials said the councilman is misinformed about the department’s decision to relocate its unit.

“The issues raised by the councilman are just outrageous, to be condemning the voluntary hospital ambulance sector,” said Ole Pedersen, a Flushing Hospital spokesman. “We’re in discussions with the Fire Department now as to what our final permanent location for that vehicle will be. It’s just a matter of their need and our deployment.”

Avella criticized the transfer on the basis that the hospital had economic interests in the neighborhood.

“From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the private hospitals seem to want to take over the more middle-class, upper-middle-class neighborhoods in the city because they’re more likely to have the insured patients,” he said.

Monday’s move will switch the Fire Department EMS unit from its 20th Avenue location to Roosevelt and Junction boulevards in Corona, where the Flushing Hospital EMS had been operating. Ambulances are stationed on corners rather than in garages.

Fire Department spokesman David Billig said the flip-flopping of units will not eliminate any of the ambulance coverage in the area.

“They’re not losing their ambulance,” Billig said. “There’s still ambulance coverage in that neighborhood and the level of service is the same as it was.”

The FDNY said its rationale for interchanging the units between Corona and College Point has little to do with insurance and more to do with bureaucratic policy.

The state Department of Health issues a certificate of need to an EMS crew, which dictates where a unit can and cannot operate, a Fire Department spokesman said.

The Health Department did not return calls to corroborate the FDNY explanation for the shift.

The Flushing Hospital unit operated in Corona for 18 months before the FDNY realized the hospital’s certificate of need did not allow the unit to operate there, the FDNY spokesman said. As a result, the crew relocated Monday to Flushing, which fell within their allowable operating zone. This required the FDNY to assume responsibility for the Corona coverage area, a department spokesman said.

One Fire Department employee, who wished to remain unnamed, said the switch was more economically motivated.

He believes the Flushing Hospital unit was punished for steering too many of the patients back to that hospital and therefore was relocated to the corner of 20th Avenue and Parsons Boulevard in Flushing. Thus, if the private ambulance crew continued to transport patients to Flushing Hospital, they would at least be bringing them from closer locations, the FDNY employee said.

Flushing Hospital’s Pedersen said the Fire Department mandated the move and that the hospital was interested in returning to the Corona location, contrary to the councilman’s allegations.

An FDNY spokesman said accusing the hospital of patient-steering was unwarranted since Flushing Hospital is the closest choice for emergency services for College Point, Flushing and Whitestone residents.

According to EMS policy, patients are allowed to choose which hospital they are brought to within a 10-minute vicinity from where they are picked up. If they do not choose, where they are brought is at the discretion of the crew under the set of guidelines distributed by the Fire Department.

Flushing Hospital competes with St. Joseph’s Medical Center and New York Hospital Center in Flushing. Flushing Hospital operates two ambulance units in northeast Queens.

Their EMS crews face the same state-certification process as the city units, Billig said. The only difference is that FDNY crews must complete the city’s training academy in order to be certified.

To Avella, that could mean a difference in the quality of service.

“I’d rather have somebody who works for EMS who’s been properly trained, properly supervised and in effect has no allegiance to one hospital or another and their mandate is to bring me to the hospital that can best service my need,” he said.

Pedersen said this assertion was unfair.

“We base decisions on patient need and patient request and the guidelines that are put out from the Fire Department,” he said. “Probably 50 percent or more of our patients do not come back to Flushing Hospital.”

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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