Thursday, May 20, 2021

City Council Creates Pathway to Expand Healthcare Access for Austinites

Today the Austin City Council approved Council Member Alison Alter's resolution creating a pilot payment system for physician services and for the city's Paramedic Practitioner Program, a healthcare program for low acuity patients. The creation of a payment system will allow the City to collect fees from insurance providers, Medicaid, and Medicare, and the new revenue will be used to expand the program and provide greater healthcare access to Austinites.

"We cannot continue to leave money on the table," said Council Member Alison Alter, lead sponsor of the resolution. "Expanding the paramedic practitioner program is the next innovation in providing high quality, affordable medical care to Austinites. By collecting money from insurance providers for these physician services, we can grow the paramedic practitioner program, which keeps folks out of the emergency room, allows first responders to tackle true emergencies, and further establishes Austin as a leader in local healthcare." 

The resolution allows the city to introduce a payment mechanism for physician services, which include physicians within the Office of the Chief Medical Officer as well as Paramedic Practitioners, who are typically physician assistants or nurse practitioners with sufficient advanced training to provide elevated care to low acuity patients in the field.

Currently, the city employs one paramedic practitioner (a physician assistant) responding to low acuity calls. When a patient calls 9-1-1 with a low acuity ailment or injury, such as a wound that needs minor stitching or a child with an ear infection, the physician assistant responds and provides medical care on site, helping patients avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital.

Most services provided by the Paramedic Practitioner Program could qualify for coverage through insurance providers, Medicare, and Medicaid. By implementing a payment system for these services, over time the City will be able to subsidize the hiring of additional paramedic practitioners, expanding this program to provide 24/7 coverage. The system also will align with current EMS billing and adjustments practices regarding the ability to pay, protecting low-income residents from receiving unaffordable bills.

"This type of program would be an asset to a growing City such as Austin," said Council Member Vanessa Fuentes. "The paramedic practitioner program is a creative solution to address a growing need for affordable healthcare services, particularly for low-income individuals, while still keeping resources available and agile enough to respond to large-scale emergency events faced by our community."

The City Manager is directed to return to City Council by June 30th with an update on this program, with the intent that the payment system be launched as soon as feasible.

"This program takes an innovative approach to serving the health needs of the community by taking quality basic care and evaluation directly to the people who need it – while also avoiding costly transport and treatment in the emergency room, " said Council Member Paige Ellis. "It's a responsive and ultimately self-sustaining approach that will promote greater efficiency in our emergency health services." 

"The Office of Chief Medical Officer is expanding access to public health and low acuity health care to help people avoid emergency rooms and stay healthier. Billing insurance and other payors for these services helps support the city's opportunity to provide these medical care services," said Council Member Ann Kitchen.

"This is a great step forward in expanding healthcare services to more Austin residents, and it will help them avoid the huge and often unnecessary cost of being transported to the emergency room," said Mayor Pro Tem Harper-Madison.