AUSTIN (KXAN) – EMS response records should be confidential and exempt from release under state public records codes as well as health and safety codes to protect patient privacy, argue attorneys for Williamson County in a newly-filed petition.
The suit filed in Travis County District Court questions a ruling from the Texas Attorney General allowing the release of certain EMS records to the fire chief in the Williamson County City of Georgetown. The court filing shows in April 2016 Chief John Sullivan requested the County’s EMS historic response time records in Georgetown and the surrounding area prior to the City’s fire department launching its own EMS service in October 2015.
The type of information Sullivan was seeking included date, time of day and various response time elements including:
- Unit designated to respond
- Nature of call (ex. heart attack)
- Dispatch time
- En route time
- Arrival time
- Community Health Paramedic data (a proactive program where medics visit post-hospital patients to lessen the possibility of return trips – serial medical calls that put stress on the ambulance system)
The County appealed to the Attorney General’s Office citing exemptions for the release of incident ID, street address, primary responding unit, zip, and geographic information as well as the Community Health Paramedic data.
Chief Sullivan later agreed to the address and location exemptions, but the ruling ordered the rest of the request was public information and had to be fulfilled. The County then protested a second time, challenging the part of the AG ruling that it “failed to demonstrate the information at issue consists of communications between EMS personnel… and patients…in the course of providing emergency medical services to the patients.”
County attorneys also take issue with the AG’s opinion the information “does not consist of records of the identity, evaluation or treatment of patients by EMS personnel or maintained by the EMS provider.”
Assistant County Attorney Ruhee G. Leonard writes in the filing, “These patients are experiencing medical emergencies, and in the course of providing medical supervision, the EMS personnel evaluates and treats these patients and identifies the nature of the injury, such as heart attack, mental health crisis, suicide attempt…”
As of this post, no hearing date has been set in Travis County.
Typically, emergency services staff use response time and other data to show areas that may be under-served and where resources can be better allocated. Response time goals are often set depending on the density of the population and are based on national standards.
Currently, the Georgetown Fire Department has four ambulances. The fire department’s goal is to be revenue neutral as soon as possible. One factor Chief Sullivan has spoken publicly about has been the speed of collecting transport and other medical fees which he has said can take months after a medical call.
KXAN received WEMS response time information last winter
The County’s court petition comes after KXAN News requested virtually the same information last winter for an investigative report about Georgetown Fire-EMS. KXAN did not request Community Health Paramedic numbers. Part of the report dealt with response times in the first months of the department’s fledgling fire-based EMS service. For comparison, KXAN requested the County’s historic records from a year prior when Williamson County EMS ran its ambulances in the same geographic area.
When Williamson County’s Assistant County Attorney Ruhee Leonard asked KXAN News to clarify its request, we agreed at the time to exclude addresses. At the same time, KXAN informally protested Ms. Leonard’s assertion general street data would also compromise patient confidentiality. She told KXAN a short street with only a few houses on it could result in the identification of a patient.
Since KXAN’s main interest was response time numbers, we agreed to receive the information as offered rendering the request closed.
Georgetown continues to budget for EMS
City council records from a July 26 work session show 2016 revenue is projected at $1.77M, about 20 percent less than expected due to ‘start up challenges.’ However, spending came in slightly under budget at $1.92 million. Still, the program produced an additional shortfall of $148,000 for a total being carried forward of $726,000.
City taxpayers funded startup costs in 2015 of $704,000.
The picture is expected to be rosier for FY2017. EMS revenue is estimated at $2.2 million due to improved collections on spending of $2.078 million. As well, the city manager is proposing hiring a Medical Health and Fitness officer to ensure quality control and billing contract management. As well that person will be responsible for hiring three paramedics to run a fourth ambulance during peak times to cut overtime.
Future planning includes full-time staffing for that fourth ambulance as well as replacing the current vehicles in 2020, the city manager told the council.