Chief: Don’t be afraid to call 911

Service cuts at Woodstock’s hospital could cost the Woodstock Fire/Rescue District hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional equipment and personnel.

About 44 percent of Woodstock-area ambulance transports in September bypassed Centegra Hospital-Woodstock for other hospitals, according to data from WFRD. By contrast, in January, about 10 percent of WFRD’s transports went elsewhere.

In mid-August, Centegra-Woodstock stopped accepting most inpatient admissions. The hospital continues to run a basic emergency room, and it offers other services, but patients who need overnight stays are being treated at Centegra-Huntley or Centegra-McHenry. That means WFRD’s ambulance runs for people with conditions ranging from serious allergic reactions to pneumonia must be transported out of town.

The additional drive time which comes with taking many patients from Woodstock to Huntley or McHenry has Fire Chief Michael Hill thinking about the future. For decades, Woodstock’s ambulance service has been structured for paramedics to deliver patients to the emergency room and be back on the road quickly — sometimes in just five or 10 minutes.

Now, Hill said, a trip to an out-of-town hospital can take an ambulance out of service for 35 to 40 minutes. For a district that runs about 12 calls a day, that time adds up. On occasion, if all three WFRD ambulances are out, crews from neighboring towns are called in to cover.

“If you go to the Woodstock hospital and drop off your patients, you’re ready to respond. An ambulance is available,” Hill said. “If you’re out in McHenry or Huntley, you’re too far away. You’re not available.”

A Centegra official said the health system is working with WFRD and that Woodstock’s ER“can provide emergency care to the vast majority of patients.”

“Our collaboration with Woodstock EMS is a work in progress, and we continue to discuss the waysto best serve patients in Woodstock and its surrounding communities,” Catie Schmit, Centegra’s director of emergency services, wrote in an email. “We are identifying additional opportunities for education to be sure patients are taken to the emergency room that provides the most appropriate care for their conditions.”

Hill cautioned WFRD’s most recent data only takes into account about a month’s worth of transports, so it’s still too early to decide if the district will need to hire more staff or buy another ambulance. But Hill said there’s a chance WFRD — and, by extension, taxpayers — will need to spend more to make up for the reduction in services at Woodstock’s hospital.

“I definitely foresee the possibility. I’d like some more data before I make that determination, but signs are pointing to the fact that we’re running more calls. That’s a fact. We’re, so far, traveling farther out of town. That’s also a fact,” Hill said.

“The problem is the risk factor,” he continued. “How often, or how much more often, are we going to run into the situation where now we do have three ambulances out because the first ambulance is gone for a longer period of time? That’s the data we’re looking to get.”

Buying a new ambulance would cost about $210,000, according to Hill. Hiring more employees to staff it would cost “easily more than $100,000” a year in salaries, benefits and other expenses, he added.

“We’re going to address our standard of coverage,” Hill said. “That’s basically taking everything into account: where are our stations, how many calls do we run per year, how many ambulances can we put up on any given day? And do we have enough resources to cover the need?”

In the case of walk-ins to Centegra-Woodstock, private ambulances are being used to transport patients to other hospitals at their expense. (Insurance typically covers at least part of this cost, which can run in the thousands. WFRD ambulance trips come with a bill, too, ranging from about $500 to $900 for residents.) When patients call 911 for an ambulance, they will be taken directly to the hospital which can best treat them, Hill said. Ambulance crews are directed by hospital doctors as to where to go.

“We’re providing everything you need that we always have, and if we have to take you to a different hospital to do it, we’re prepared to do that,” he said.

Hill added he’s worried about injured or sick people deciding to skip the ambulance altogether by driving themselves to the hospital when they’re in no shape to do so.

“Don’t be afraid to call 911. The most disturbing stories I’ve heard were of people that needed help and didn’t want to call the ambulance because they weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Hill said. “We, Woodstock Fire/Rescue District, are going to take care of you. We’re going to get you to the correct hospital and get you the treatment you need.”

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