IREDELL COUNTY, N.C. - During the course of a two month Whistlebower 9 Investigation, more than half a dozen paramedics told us their employer, Iredell County EMS, is putting lives at risk.
"It's scary," said one paramedic, who asked not to be identified.
The issue, according to the paramedics, dates back to last year. In an effort to potentially generate money, the county decided to start responding to convalescent, or non-emergency, calls. For 15 years, those calls had been handled by a private ambulance service in the county.
"Instead of allowing another convalescence company come in," the paramedic said. "(The county) opted to take it over themselves."
The effect on staff was dramatic. In January, the first full month the county began responding to convalescence calls, crews had to respond to nearly 1,878 calls total calls. Last January, when Iredell County EMS only handled emergency 911 calls, it responded to just 1,365 calls.
Six months into the new practice of responding to convalescence, Iredell County EMS is averaging about 30 percent more calls than last year. It's also resulted in what appear to be slower response times, especially in recent months.
"The main issue is staffing," the paramedic told us. "Fatigue is a serious issue due to understaffing and when paramedics are fatigued, it affects patient care."
Several paramedics told us that further affecting patient care is an unwritten mandate prioritizing convalescent calls over emergency 911 calls.
For example, multiple paramedics said they were close to patients who needed emergency care but were because they were already dispatched to convalescent (non-emergency) call, they were directed not to respond to emergencies they could've gotten too quickly.
The paramedics we spoke to explained that they believed the emphasis has been placed on convalescent calls because most patients served are covered by Medicare and Medicaid. On emergency calls, they told us, there's no guarantee that patients will be covered by health insurance.
Iredell County Manager, Ron Smith, denied that convalescent calls would ever be prioritized over emergency calls. He told us EMS director David Cloer would respond to our investigation on camera after our initial story aired on Tuesday.
During the course of our investigation, Cloer did exchange several emails with us, indicating he thought any delays might be the result of new electronic software being used to log patient calls and potentially because of where the ambulances are positioned.