Inmates faking heart attacks to catch ambulance rides into Johnson City

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – While patients are calling for ambulances thousands of times each year for what are generally considered non-emergencies, accused criminals are taking things a step further and abusing the ambulance service altogether, according to Washington County-Johnson City EMS Chief Dan Wheeley.

Chief Wheeley said after some inmates are released from jail, they’re using EMS as a taxi service. Not only are taxpayers left paying the fare, they’re also dealing with the impact on ambulance service, he said.

“That’s a total abuse of the system hands down,” Chief Wheeley said. “We’re really in a difficult position to tell people, ‘No, you can’t go to the hospital.'”

Chief Wheeley said some inmates fake heart attacks or other serious health issues and then sign out of the hospital before doctors even see them. Each trip costs taxpayers roughly $600 if the person’s uninsured, the chief said. In addition, it takes an ambulance away from someone who might really need it.

“They don’t have a way back to Johnson City,” Chief Wheeley said of the released inmates. “They’ll go out to the pay phone, call 911 and complain of chest pain. It’s very frustrating, because a lot of times the patient will walk out of the ER before the crew even gets their cot made and is ready to leave the ER.”

EMS records for the first nine months of this year show 16 chest pain and cardiac arrest calls from the jail. We don’t know the specifics of each call, but Chief Wheeley said some undoubtedly represent inmates on the other side of the bars who actually need help. However, based on his experience, he said others are not real emergencies.

Earlier this year, we reported TennCare patients are costing taxpayers more than $80 million a year for non-emergency trips to the ER. Our investigation also found an additional $1 million annual cost in Sullivan and Washington counties for non-emergency ambulance trips to the ER.

At the time, Rep. John Holsclaw (R), TN-District 4, and Sen. Rusty Crowe (R), TN-District 3, both on state health oversight committees, expressed concerns.

Both lawmakers today said they feel this problem also deserves their attention.

“You gotta be kidding,” Rep. Holsclaw said of the situation. “I’ll look into that. We have to figure out how we can protect them.”

“We can meet with (the district attorney) and then meet with the head of EMS,” Sen. Crowe said. “From (the DA’s) perspective, we can see what exists currently that can be considered for fraud or abuse of the system. I can check with our attorneys too.”

Chief Wheeley knows there’s no simple solution, but he hopes lawmakers can strike a balance between more legal protection for ambulance providers and possible criminal action for those who abuse the system.

“I think that’s going to take some legislative changes,” he said. “I think it would be a deterrent if they knew when they walked out of the ER they were going to be arrested and go back to jail.”

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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