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September 15, 2010

Ill. fire department turns down request to help lift 700-pound woman

By Dean Olsen
The State Journal-Register

ROCKFORD, Ill. — A Rockford-area ambulance company owner is calling the Springfield Fire Department unprofessional and insensitive after the department refused to help the company's paramedics lift a 700-pound patient into her Springfield home after she was discharged from a northern Illinois hospital Friday.

"I was just stunned at that overall attitude," said Robert Esmond, owner of Mercy Ambulance Service in Loves Park. "To me, it's short-changing the citizens. There shouldn't be problems with agencies helping each other out."

Esmond said he never before was refused free assistance from a municipal fire department when his paramedics needed help lifting an obese patient into the patient's house.

Department policy
Deputy Springfield Fire Chief Greg Surbeck said department policy requires that requests to help lift, transfer or transport patients in non-emergencies be turned down. The policy dates from March 2009, he said.

Several firefighters had received workers' compensation because of back injuries suffered while lifting obese patients under those circumstances, he said.

In one sense, Surbeck said he empathized with Esmond, because the fire department and medical-transport organizations are dealing with the ramifications of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

Esmond said he has transported discharged patients to their homes in Rockford, Chicago's suburbs and several downstate communities. Fire departments in those towns have been willing to spare several workers, at no charge, for the 15 or 20 minutes it takes to safely move an obese patient into his or her home, he said.

Surbeck said he would be surprised if Springfield's policy is unique, adding that it's unfair for the owner of a for-profit company to criticize a tax-supported fire department.

'Sweet deal'
"How is that the taxpayers' problem?" asked Surbeck, a paramedic and former ambulance service employee. "He's got a sweet deal going - he's got free labor."

Surbeck said the Springfield department focuses on emergency services and making firefighters and paramedics available for fires and health-related emergencies.

Esmond said Medicare and Medicaid, which often cover patients Mercy Ambulance transports, don't pay him enough to justify sending more vehicles to help the two paramedics in a single ambulance.

"We're sympathetic," Surbeck said. "We all have large friends and family members."

However, he said, "A private business accepts a certain amount of risk."

Esmond said Springfield's department should make an exception for out-of-town transport companies that have a hard time arranging for other assistance.

"It's not like it takes a lot of time or resources," he said.

Esmond said 15 minutes of several firefighters' time is all that would have been required.

But Surbeck said transferring a 700-pound patient probably would have required six of his firefighters to work with Esmond's two paramedics for an hour.

Local firm responds
After several attempts, Esmond was able to make arrangements with a Springfield-based ambulance company that was planning to meet Esmond's two paramedics Friday night and help move the patient.

Esmond said he hoped the Springfield company would help at no charge. Otherwise, he said the patient, who is covered by Medicaid and Medicare, might be stuck with a bill not covered by either program.

The 42-year-old patient didn't want her name published, according to her brother, Andy Johnson of Springfield. Johnson said his sister is moving into his mobile home after a three-week stay at Kindred Hospital-Sycamore.

She has chronic health problems and was recovering from an infection, he said.

Johnson's sister previously lived with another sister in Sherman, he said. After previous hospitalizations, Sherman firefighters always helped transport workers lift her into the house, Johnson said.

But he said he understood the reasons behind the Springfield Fire Department's policy.

Copyright 2010 The State Journal- Register

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