Wash. city community paramedic program receives grant of up to $150K

As two Walla Walla paramedics continue to serve the initiative in its second year, the fire department and hospital say they have seen cost savings


Emry Dinman
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — It has been more than a year since the Walla Walla Fire Department hired its first community paramedic — established to reduce unnecessary ambulance rides and emergency room visits — and several months since the department hired a second.

The department will be able to keep both of those positions for at least another year, thanks to funds the Walla Walla City Council accepted on Wednesday, Aug. 24, said Deputy Fire Chief Eric Wood in an interview.

The grant for up to $150,000 from the Greater Columbia Accountable Community of Health and Emergency Medical Services Innovative will allow the department to maintain its current staffing levels. Of those funds, $50,000 is earmarked for the community paramedic program to change its report-writing program.

The Walla Walla Fire Department was one of eight EMS providers in the 10 counties served by the Greater Columbia Accountable Community of Health to receive funding this year, according to a staff report to City Council. That funding may be renewable, Wood noted during last Wednesday's council meeting.

"We have to make sure we do a good job for this one year and meet their criteria and their benchmarks," Wood told council members. "I perceive that as long as that is moving forward in a good trajectory that we'll be able to reapply, but there's no guarantee, obviously, with grant funding."

The community paramedic program, which started in May 2021, was originally envisioned as a solution to an economic and social problem: Some residents frequently and unnecessarily use emergency services. Those ambulance rides and emergency room visits are costly, and quick assistance from a community paramedic would often be more effective and cost-efficient, Wood said in an interview.

In the wake of police reforms passed by the Washington state Legislature in 2021, the community paramedic program also began taking on calls that the police once responded to where law enforcement was not necessary or could possibly exacerbate a situation, including many low-level mental health-related calls.

Walla Walla's community paramedic program was launched last year with a $110,000 grant from Providence St. Mary Medical Center's Population Health program, after an initially unsuccessful application for funding from Walla Walla County.

The economic benefits to the hospital have been clear, Wood said. Over the course of 11 months, the program diverted 140 calls that would likely have resulted in an emergency room visit, each of which would have cost Providence an average of $2,400, for a total of $336,000 in cost savings.

The cost savings to the fire department have also been evident, though Wood did not have an estimate on-hand for total savings for the lifetime of the program. However, ambulance rides cost on average $1,400, Wood said, and for Medicare or Medicaid patients, only a fraction of that is reimbursed.

The financial strain on the ambulance service in recent years has led city leaders to consider a controversial tax increase to keep the city's EMS services solvent.

The social benefits of the program are more difficult to quantify, but are core to the mission of the community paramedics, Wood said.

"We really want to make sure that we are getting these patients, whose issues aren't emergent ... we want to be that liaison so we can get people the appropriate care," he said.

"That's really what this program is founded on, and I think we have shown that we've been successful."

Since the program's inception last year, the county has reversed course and awarded $50,000 to support the community paramedics, Wood said. The department has also received reassurances from city leadership that the program would receive local funds in the next biannual budget, he said.

"They're looking at around $200,000," he said.

The influx of funds allowed the department in May to hire a second community paramedic, and while there aren't immediate plans to hire a third, there's certainly enough work in the community to justify future expansion, Wood said.

There are also a number of goals that the program hasn't been able to address yet, Wood said, such as being able to work with patients after they've been discharged from the hospital to keep them from returning days later, or to help the elderly who have fallen and need assistance getting up and potentially outfitting their home to prevent future falls.

Like the broader economy, the community paramedic program has also struggled with some supply chain issues, Wood added, and the department is still waiting for cardiac monitors and a second vehicle that have been plagued by delays.

But what components of the program have been funded and are operating have proven vital to the community, Wood said, and have attracted the attention of other communities who are looking to Walla Walla for inspiration.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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