Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Little progress in ambulance ER wait times

Katz points to new cash to relieve strain on staff

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Winnipeg ambulances still wait more than an hour to unload patients at city emergency rooms nearly two years after the city started to fine hospitals for excessive delays.

On Wednesday, Mayor Sam Katz reiterated the city's pledge to spend more money on a new ambulance for Winnipeg streets and an additional 12 paramedics in 2013. Katz said the city already has some of the fastest response times in the country, but the move is expected to help ease the strain on paramedics, who continue to face delays at city hospitals.

The city's $920-million operating budget includes $569,138 to pay for the additional ambulance staff, along with $659,500 more for the fire-paramedic budget to add 10 new dispatch operators.

The city started in April 2011 to charge hospitals for delays that left paramedics waiting to unload patients. Initially, the city billed $113 per hour for each time paramedics waited more than 90 minutes. The threshold then dropped to 60 minutes.

The city planned to eventually charge hospitals for delays longer than 30 minutes, but health officials say that goal is "not realistic."

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service officials confirmed the average ambulance waited 65 minutes to unload patients at city hospitals in 2012.

Finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) blamed the ongoing delays on the province, saying city ambulances are being tied up because provincial officials do not want to say they have hallway medicine. He said it's up to hospitals to come up with a long-term solution to get paramedics back on the street faster.

Winnipeg continues to spend more of its annual operating budget on paramedics and police, which combined, eats up 44 per cent -- $406 million -- of the city's total spending on programs and services. City spending on the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service will rise by $8.9 million in 2013, largely due to an increase in personnel, salaries and benefits.

Helen Clark, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's EMS and police liaison, said no one wants to see delays in drop-off times, and health officials are working to make things better. Clark called it a "complex problem," particularly due to congested ERs that get a large number of visits.

She said officials are working closely with the province to examine ways to take patients to alternatives places other than the ER. Clark said there's a possibility paramedics could assess stable patients and direct them to wait to see a family doctor or visit a quick-care clinic.

She said hospital charge nurses can admit some ambulance patients to the ER waiting room to free up paramedics. Respiratory therapists can also take over an ambulance's patient during the day before they are seen by an ER doctor and when more than one ambulance is waiting, one crew unloads a patient to the second crew so it can return to the road.

Between January and August 2012, city hospitals were invoiced for slightly more than $1 million in ambulance drop-off delays.

"None of us really want that delay to occur," Clark said. "We want the paramedics to get back on the street and for patients to get back into treatment spaces."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 A5

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