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Community paramedicine programs offer savings

David Weldon, Contributor

Several areas across the country are trying out community paramedicine programs in an effort to increase healthcare services and decrease healthcare costs.

Community paramedicine programs enable traveling paramedics to perform a variety of services for elderly patients, low income patients and patients in rural areas and help eliminate unnecessary or repeat trips to hospitals, or provide care that the patient otherwise wouldn't receive.

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Maine is credited as being the first state in the country to have a state-level community paramedicine program coordinator and for being the location where the term "community paramedicine" was born.

Last year, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bill that authorized a dozen community paramedicine pilot programs to serve the state.

"We decided to tackle this at a state-wide level. Two programs are now approved, and a half-dozen have active applications before the state," said Kevin McGinnis, the state community paramedicine program coordinator who has espoused the community paramedicine idea for more than a decade and is the man credited with coining "community paramedicine."

"The idea was almost entirely of the rural setting – the rural paramedic," McGinnis said. "The farther away you lived from a hospital, the more likely you were to benefit from healthcare services, but the less likely you were to receive them. Today, the idea has spread, and is not just a rural concept anymore."

[See also: Telemedicine: The cost effective future of medicine?]

The financial impact of Maine's community paramedicine pilots is not known yet but the state is collecting data. McGinnis said he is optimistic the programs will yield savings similar to those achieved in other states with community paramedicine programs.

Colorado is aiming to follow Maine's footsteps. It has an aggressive community paramedicine program under way, but in order to expand, needs funding, said Christopher A. Montera, chief of clinical services and assistant CEO at Eagle County Paramedic Services, in Vale, Colo.

"We wanted to reduce readmissions into the hospital system, and bolster public health in our area," Montera said.

Eagle County, which is 2,000 square miles in area, 70 miles long and has a population of 55,000, only has one paramedic providing care for the entire region. "He needs help," Montera said.

Three additional paramedics are being trained for the Eagle County program, but to really expand services will require more money.

"We receive only grant funding right now," said Montera. "We get our funds from the Colorado Health Fund, Caring for Colorado and the state Department of Health."

A case for more funding can be made on the results the state has seen from the programs that are already in place. Eagle County commissioned a study on the amount of services provided from 2010 to 2012 and the related savings to the greater healthcare community.

Montera said the study revealed that the community paramedicine program prevented 47 doctor visits; 14 ambulance transports; 13 emergency room visits; three hospital admissions/readmissions; and one patient was kept out of skilled nursing for 244 days. The program saved $124,071 in total, with an average savings of $1,279 per visit and $3,446 per patient.

Local paramedics and physicians hope the state will step up and take over partial or full funding, as was the case in Maine, or receive some money at the federal level.

In March, representatives from the Eagle County program are traveling to Washington D.C. to push for federal funding for community paramedicine programs and to have services become eligible for Medicaid payments.

"We have the attention of several congressmen around the country," Montera said, "and we have a bill ready to go before Congress, when the time is right."

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