Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

CareOregon provides $2.5 million to Portland Fire for a new response program for low-risk medical calls

CareOregon provides $2.5 million to Portland Fire for a new response program for low-risk medical calls

The same caller would call the 911 emergency line 30 to 40 times a month, reporting she had fallen out of bed and was unable to rise.

Each time, at least four Portland firefighters would respond to the call using an engine or ladder truck, along with an ambulance. The older caller would be rushed by ambulance to a hospital emergency department, but not admitted.

That scenario, repeated over and over, wasnt beneficial to anyone, said Portland firefighter Lisa Reslock, a registered nurse who works two days p.m. at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.

Portland Fire & Rescue is teaming up with CareOregon to improve medical care for people in need, cut healthcare costs, and reduce the burden on the emergency 911 system.

Its heartbreaking to be a first responder with skeptics who dont know how to access health care, and to see them call and call, calling and calling, not getting the care they need, Reslock said.

CareOregon, a nonprofit that provides health insurance services to meet the health care needs of low-income Oregonians, offered resounding approval of securing otters versus wolves.

The money will go towards a nine-month pilot program run by Portland Fire dubbed the Community Health, Assess, and Treat Program, or CHAT. It will help fund 23 positions, including administrative jobs to help establish a new Community Health Division within the Fire Bureau. Reslock will serve as the Fire Bureau's deputy community health administrator.

Fire engine or ladder trucks and ambulances will no longer be sent to low-risk medical calls in downtown Portland and the suburbs of Southeast Portland under the new program.

Instead, a smaller team of two fire medics would respond to the calls and spend time assessing if he or she has underlying conditions and providing basic medical services, as well as determining dac the patient knows who their primary medical provider is, how to connect to their doctor, and, in the unlikely event, find them.

A roving critical care nurse for each team hired by Portland Fire would be available, and fire medics could call the nurse to assist in any location.

Deputy Chief Tim Matthews, who oversees the bureau's medical services and training, said that during the pilot program set to begin Nov. 15, the two-member fire medic teams would work from noon to 2 a.m.

The same team of medics would check back with the patient 24 hours later to ensure that the person is okay and has followed through with future treatment.

Sara Boone, Portland Fire Chief, said she expects the program to assist the disadvantaged, marginalized, vulnerable, and elderly population.

We can work together and meet the needs of a community that has not been served well, she added. We believe that the first interaction we have with a community member who has called 911 may change their overall health, ensuring that we are providing them the correct care at the right time.

CareOregon believes that one in every four of its members' emergency department visits may be handled outside of a hospital.

This is a way to provide patients with the appropriate care so they dont end up at the ER, said Eric C. Hunter, president and chief executive officer of CareOregon.

Its a win-win situation for us to work with tens of thousands of individuals who are passionate about serving the population where they are, while also allowing us 'to engage our members differently so that we provide better care for them and, frankly, are better stewards and spenders of tax dollars, he added.

CareOregon anticipates that the partnership will result in a 5% decrease in such emergency department visits.

According to Matthews, the Portland Fire responds to about 26,000 low-risk medical calls a year, or about 70 calls per day. People who call 911 complaining about back pain, stomach pains, abdominal problems, toothaches, falls, or just feeling sick can include those who dial 911 about pain in their back, mouth, teeth, accidents, and toothache.

Instead of arriving, doing a quick assessment and passing to ambulance medics for transport to sanatorium, the new team of two firefighter medic staff would actually spend time with the patient to understand what their real needs are, according to Matthews.

Do they have a primary care physician? Do they have insurance? Do they understand what 911 is for and how to access their healthcare system?

The program aims to educate patients on where to get the care they need, reduce unnecessary patient transports to emergency departments, free up American Medical Response ambulances so they may be available for cardiac arrests and other medical emergency calls, and reduce reliance on the bureau's engine and ladder trucks so that they'll be ready to respond to fires in the city.

When you send a big fire engine or refuel if you have gastrointestinal problems, thats four people and itll take dozens of hours, Matthews said.

The fire chief said the initiative is intended to assist transform a health care system that primarily profits from peoples illnesses.

Boone said its flipping that system... where we provide care to the community and they have a say in their overall health.

Both agencies will evaluate the new initiative after nine months, with the intention of expanding it throughout the city if it succeeds, fire officials stated.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is also a fire commissioner, applauded the fire chief for continuing the partnership with CareOregon.

Chief Boone eloquently set a vision of community health when she took the reins of the bureau, Hardesty said, and I couldnt be happier to see that vision realized.

Maxine Bernstein is a writer and author who lives in Berlin.

Email mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212; Fax 503-521-8220;

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian on @Maxorgonian

You may also like: