Rising costs may alter borough paramedic service

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Naugatuck Ambulance on Rubber Avenue is looking at changing paramedic coverage in Naugatuck due to increasing costs. ELIO GUGLIOTTI
NAUGATUCK — Charity Alaburda had just eaten something last week when she felt her throat start to close. An allergic reaction was kicking in, sending her body into shock.

An emergency medical crew from Naugatuck Ambulance arrived at Alaburda’s house on Aetna Street minutes later to find her unable to move or breathe. A paramedic injected her with epinephrine and steroids to open her lungs before the crew transported her to Saint Mary’s Hospital.

Immediately after her close call, Alaburda, 35, was shocked to learn that the ambulance service was planning to cut funding for round-the-clock paramedics in the borough.

“It makes me uncomfortable staying in this town, knowing I don’t have that kind of access to a paramedic,” Alaburda said.

Naugatuck Ambulance, which the borough contracts to handle emergency medical calls, employs 24 emergency medical technicians but pays Waterbury-based Campion Ambulance to provide one paramedic per 12-hour shift to respond to calls from 246 Rubber Ave. Paramedics are more highly trained and can do some things, like inject certain drugs and perform defibrillation, that emergency medical technicians cannot.

Naugatuck Ambulance paid $266,000 for paramedics during the fiscal year that ended June 30, and would have to pay about $17,000 more this year, President Larry Santoro said. After Sept. 1, they will instead call paramedics from Waterbury as needed, Santoro said.

“Just like every business in the country for the last couple years, we’re looking at everything and realizing how we’re losing money,” Santoro said. “This is not a decision we made lightly. It is not a decision we want to make, but the economic times kind of necessitate it.”

Many other towns use the same “intercept program,” where an out-of-town paramedic meets ambulance crews at the scene of an emergency or on the way to the hospital, Santoro said. The borough handled calls that way until the late 1990s and often calls Campion or American Medical Response in Waterbury for backup when the borough paramedic is busy, he said.

“We might be there two minutes ahead of them, still giving basic EMT ambulance support,” Santoro said. “It’s not like it’s going to be a 15- or 20-minute delay before they get anybody there.”

Even under the old price, the corporation could not continue to afford a borough-based paramedic, Santoro said. The prices of the drugs paramedics administer, such as epinephrine and lidocaine, have also increased, and the ambulance service is receiving less in insurance reimbursement than it used to, he said.
“It’s just not paying for itself to have them here 24 hours a day,” Santoro said.

Naugatuck Ambulance would still have to pay $350 each time they call a paramedic, which they have done more than 1,200 times in the past two years. Based on that calculation, they would pay about $214,000 a year for paramedic services.

The borough gives Naugatuck Ambulance an annual stipend for its services, currently set at about $148,420 for this fiscal year, an increase of about $2,300 over last fiscal year. Santoro said he did not ask for more because he did not think the borough could afford it.

Under a 2007 agreement with the borough, the ambulance corps is required to provide sufficient paramedic resources to comply with state regulations. Mayor Robert A. Mezzo said borough attorneys were working to determine whether switching to an intercept program would break the agreement. The borough will present a legal analysis at Tuesday’s meeting between Naugatuck Ambulance and the Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses.

Residents said they were scared to hear of the proposal to eliminate the in-house paramedic.

“The idea makes me sick to my stomach,” said Steve Wilcox, 38, who lives at 644 Field St. but is a paramedic in another town. “It’s a giant step backward for emergency medicine in this town.”