Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has signed a bill allowing emergency care providers to offer non-emergency medical assistance in their communities to reduce noncritical calls to 911, especially in rural areas.
The providers could fill gaps in the current medical system by helping people manage their medicine or chronic illnesses, giving them a ride to their doctor's office or home from a hospital, or connecting them with other medical or mental health services, supporters said.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Margie MacDonald, allows the Board of Medical Examiners to create rules detailing changes and a training program for paramedics and emergency medical technicians. It does not require volunteer emergency agencies to offer the services.
Supporters said the measure, which Bullock signed Wednesday, will reduce the number of 911 calls from people who could have been helped earlier and less expensively.
Hundreds of programs around the country are using emergency care providers to fill similar community medical needs. Montana has successful pilot programs in Cut Bank and Red Lodge, said Jim DeTienne, supervisor of the state health department's Emergency Medical Services and Trauma Systems section.
Medicaid pays for similar programs in other states, and the department is talking with health insurers about covering the service. However, insurers wanted to see it credentialed and regulated, DeTienne said.
Supporters said the program may draw volunteers who don't want to be on-call for emergency situations but would be willing to help with scheduled visits.
The state has funding for six pilot projects that would gather data about the effectiveness of the programs, said Jon Ebelt, spokesman for the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Officials with fire and rescue services told lawmakers about 911 calls that could have been avoided if the callers had someone to help them manage their medication or give them a ride to a doctor instead of an emergency room if that would better serve them.
The legislation gives emergency responders the ability to sit down with patients and get to the reason for repeated 911 calls, said Bob Drake, chief of the Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department, northeast of Helena.
Drake told lawmakers a resident, despite being in a wheelchair, kept falling and calling 911. He said he finally asked the man why he was falling so much and the man said the brakes on his wheelchair were broken and it kept rolling out from under him as he moved in or out of the chair.
Drake said the man was a patient of the Department of Veterans Affairs, so he called the VA, but they said it would take a few weeks to get him a new wheelchair.
Drake said he went home and got his late father's wheelchair and took it to the man.
"The 911 calls stopped for three weeks," he said.