DennisBeaverJanuary 21, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

On Sept. 7, 2008, 14-year-old Colin Swenson was in Eureka attending a memorial service, with friends. His parents were at home, a few miles away, in Arcata. During the service he fainted, was taken outside into the fresh air and within seconds, came to and was fine.

Someone in attendance called an ambulance, which arrived promptly. He was examined by city ambulance attendants, vital signs taken, and still, he was fine. However, they instructed him to get into the ambulance, which he did, walking unassisted. He was taken into the ER of a nearby hospital. Staff there said that he was fine and did not require to be admitted.

Before taking off for the hospital, no effort to personally contact his parents was made by the city ambulance employees. This was in clear violation of local emergency medical services policy for transporting a minor in a non-life threatening condition. That policy require a “reasonable attempt to contact a parent or other legally qualified representative before treatment or transport.”

Instead of phoning Colin’s family themselves, the city ambulance employees, revealing a complete and total lack of common sense, relied on the statement from another 14-year-old child present that he had “tried calling but got no answer.” It was a bystander who phoned Mrs. Swenson, telling her that Colin was on the way to the hospital.

Shortly thereafter, his parents received a bill from city ambulance for more than $600. Despite several phone calls and promises of “getting back to you,” Colin’s father, Paul Swenson, never did hear from the city ambulance management

“Our son was lucid and conscious and, if asked, could have given the emergency personnel his phone number. Friends could have provided that information as well. As we had the legal right to refuse that $600 ambulance ride, we were never given the choice,” Paul Swenson stated in an e-mail.

Taken for a ride

One of the most expensive “rides” you can ever take would be as a patient in an ambulance. While charges vary a great deal, depending upon where you live and how “cozy” local government is with the ambulance providers, you could be charged from $500 to around $1,000 per person.

Add to that mileage — $4 to $21 per mile charged by some ambulance companies — $50 for oxygen, a “night additional fee” of around $50 if they respond from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and so many other individual charges for things most people would assume should be included in that basic response fee.

Over the years, I’ve spent hours with clients and readers, going over ambulance bills, simply shaking my head. I’ve seen too many instances of ambulances driving right past the best equipped hospital for the patient’s needs, only because it generated a larger mileage bill. Or, instances of oxygen being administered to obviously healthy, high school football players who suffered knee injuries.

Indeed, ambulance companies are often, with good justification, accused of nickle-and-diming the public with outrageous fees for basic services or consumable items costing a fraction of what they bill.

“The reason our charges might seem excessive is that we are usually only paid a part of our real out-of-pocket expenses. Often, we roll on a call and receive nothing, so the elevated fees charged to those who can pay helps make up for the losses,” I was told by an emergency medical services coordinator in the Houston area.

He, like most of the people I contacted in researching this story, were keenly aware of how politics influences employment and asked that I keep his name confidential.

“One of the factors which leads to high ambulance rates is the lack of competition. Except in some large cities, there might be only one ambulance company in a town. They are often monopolies, far too close to local governments which establish their rates. Conflicts of interest are common, leading to higher charges that which can justify a great deal of the time,” he pointed out.

A fair compromise

You and the Law spoke with management, both at EMS North Coast Emergency Medical Services, and at City Ambulance. They were all helpful, responsive, and, as Jaison Chand from City told me, “This incident was clearly a teachable moment for our staff. They should have personally tried to reach Colin’s parents.”

I told Mr. Chand that, in my legal opinion, they could not charge Colin’s family for taking him to the hospital under these circumstances. He then asked me a question: “Mr. Beaver, do you think it’s fair to only charge the response fee — roughly $200 — as we did come out, and the boy had some difficulty leading to that 911 call?”

It seemed to be a reasonable compromise and I told him that I would recommend it to my reader.

Paul Swenson immediately agreed and felt that had he only been billed the initial response there never would have been an issue.

“My family recognizes the importance of having good ambulance service in our community and we know that if our son had a real problem, the ambulance attendants would have provided him with good care,” he told me.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.