ANNAPOLIS Kaiser Permanente is denying allegations that it plans to set up a private emergency system in Maryland that would compete with the state’s own 9-1-1 service, but Maryland lawmakers have their doubts about the company’s assurances.
On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee unanimously supported a bill that would prohibit health care companies from restricting members’ rights to call 9-1-1 during medical emergencies. The bill will be heard on the Senate floor early next week.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, said he proceeded with the bill because he’s skeptical about Kaiser’s plans.
“They need to show me they aren’t going to do this in Maryland, and they haven’t done that,” the finance chairman said.
But a Kaiser spokeswoman said that the company is not setting up a private 9-1-1 system in the Mid-Atlantic area, which includes Maryland and Washington, D.C.
“If a member has a life-threatening emergency, we require them to call 9-1-1,” said Mary Woods, a spokeswoman for the health insurance company’s Mid-Atlantic region.
The favorable vote comes on the heels of a public hearing on the legislation, which would also prevent managed care companies and health insurers from establishing private emergency medical response services in the state.
Talk that Kaiser was going to establish a parallel emergency system for Maryland and the District of Columbia along the lines of one it created in Colorado prompted Bromwell to draft the bill.
Surprisingly, Kaiser has joined police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and hospitals in supporting Bromwell’s bill.
At the hearing Wednesday, proponents said their greatest concern is that people will be confused, causing delays in treatment, in trying to determine whether to call the private or public emergency service first.
Woods said Kaiser believes insurers should not restrict members’ rights to access 9-1-1 or discourage members from receiving emergency ambulance services.
Under the pilot system established by Kaiser Permanente of Colorado, members are asked to call the plan’s emergency number or 9-1-1. There have been complaints about the system’s methods in that state.
Kaiser, based in California, recently consolidated all its emergency services with the contractor American Medical Response. Members still will be able to call 9-1-1 for medical emergencies, Woods said. However, for non- emergencies, they are encouraged to call American, which will then call 9-1-1 if necessary. American also has the option of referring a patient to a nurse on a medical advice line.
Bromwell said he has a problem with members having to jump through so many hoops to find out what kind of care they need.
“If this is not a situation waiting for a disaster to happen, I don’t know what is,” he said during the hearing. “Phone diagnoses are extremely dangerous,” particularly when someone’s life could be at stake and time a crucial factor.
The bill also would require insurers to pay for emergencies that are medically necessary if a member opts to call 9-1-1 and the insurer bills them.
Under Kaiser’s policy, members are covered for emergency room care if they have a “reasonable emergency.”
If the bill were to pass, Bromwell said it would ensure that Maryland continue to have a “smooth-running, effective emergency system” that could not be jeopardized by private competition.