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As a $1.07 million, three-year contract for paramedic services from Danbury Ambulance is being considered by local officials, one wheelchair-bound Newtown resident suffering from progressive Multiple Sclerosis told The Newtown Bee that she is refusing to accept future transportation from the company after she was reportedly “abandoned for more than an hour” by the company following a meeting at a church on Stadley Rough Road in Danbury.
Following a formal complaint, a Connecticut Department of Health (DPH) spokesperson confirmed that the state Office of Emergency Medical Services (OEMS) is investigating the matter.
On June 29, Maura Downes, MPA, Director of Communications for the DPH said, “OEMS received the complaint in yesterday afternoon’s mail. They will be opening an investigation today. Since this will be an open investigation, we cannot comment further at this time.”
Danbury Ambulance President and CEO Joseph Desimone bristled at the accusation during a call that day, stating that the wheelchair equipped van that was assigned the May 21, 2018 pickup by an intermediary ride-booking service could not reach the pickup site because police had blocked the roads.
But resident Frances Hickman, 67, who resides at Nunnawauk Meadows, and a witness who stayed with her while she waited both counter that more than a dozen other attendees to a meeting they attended at the location in Danbury were able to get to and from the location, along with a SweetHART dial-a-ride bus that dropped Ms Hickman off and eventually picked her up hours later.
“My statement is, the road was closed by the police department,” Mr Desimone said when reached for comment. “That’s what happened, and I’m sticking to my story.”
In the brief call to the newspaper in response to a request for comment, Mr Desimone initially said that his company “never had contact with” Ms Hickman. But both Ms Hickman and a friend and witness who spoke to The Bee, named Liz Gorman, stated that they were on a speaker phone conversation with a Danbury Ambulance dispatcher and someone in the background who Ms Hickman insists was Mr Desimone.
“My brother was on the way to pick her up, and he couldn’t get through because of the storm. Don’t people understand that?” Mr Desimone asked.
He then said the SweetHART wheelchair bus was able to get through because it brought her before the storm, which occurred six days earlier.
When he was reminded that the storm, which delivered devastating damage and caused one death in Danbury, occurred on May 15, while the incident in question happened on May 21, Mr Desimone reverted to his comment that Danbury police had “closed the road,” and his van could not get through because of “all the downed wires and trees.”
“The roads were closed by the police department — no way in to get Mrs Hickman, very simple,” he said. “There was no abandonment. How could somebody accuse a company of leaving her behind? If you can’t get through, guess what? You don’t pick up the patient.
“If the patient was safe where they are, you wouldn’t want the patient put at risk trying to get her in the vehicle and having something happen,” Mr Desimone added.
When reminded that within 90 minutes of his service’s inability to reach Ms Hickman, another public transit service vehicle was able to get to the pickup, Mr Desimone responded, “So, what’s the issue? We never left her behind. She got to where she got, and we couldn’t get to her. That happens all the time.”
Speaking To Dispatcher
Ms Hickman said after waiting more than 20 minutes after the van was scheduled to arrive, and while on a speaker phone with Ms Gorman standing beside her, she was told that “the van was just leaving, and I should see them in a few minutes.” Danbury Ambulance is approximately three miles from the pickup point, Ms Hickman said.
At that point in the day, Accuweather records show it was sunny and 75 degrees in Danbury, and Ms Hickman said she was not uncomfortable because of the temperature.
“But sitting in a parking lot for two and a half hours is not a desirable place for a person in a wheelchair to be,” Ms Hickman said.
“After another 40 or 45 minutes, I called back and was told the van couldn’t get through because the roads were blocked,” Ms Hickman told The Bee. “So I proceeded to give them directions for a route that was open from their garage. When I was told the van was not coming back, I asked them what I was supposed to do, and I heard Joe shout in the background, ‘tell her it’s not our problem, it’s her’s…’ So I contacted SweetHART, and they finally were able to find a bus to come and take me back to Newtown about an hour later.”
Ms Gorman said she was so upset seeing her friend left without a ride home, that once Ms Hickman was safely on her way, she immediately took pen in hand to write down the details of the incident. She provided those notes to The Newtown Bee.
“The vehicle was scheduled to arrive at 1:15 pm. The parking lot crowd thinned, and her transportation had not yet arrived. After several minutes, only the two of us remained in the lot, and she decided to check the status of her pickup. She called Danbury Ambulance and was told that a vehicle was en route to get her,” Ms Gorman’s notes affirmed.
“Several more minutes passed — no vehicle. She called Danbury Ambulance again and was told that the vehicle could not pick her up because the normal route they used was closed,”
Ms Gorman’s notes reflect. “[Ms Hickman] tried exhaustively to point out to the dispatcher — even offering directions — that there several ways to get from Exit 6 to Exit 7, either via 84 itself or via several secondary roads that we know are fully open.
“She was flatly refused transportation. [Ms Hickman] was left there in that parking lot — left with no reasonable explanation, no alternative suggested by Danbury Ambulance, and no ride,” Ms Gorman recalled.
Ms Gorman notes reflect she had “a hard time grasping that this happened — or would be permitted to happen.
“This is grossly irresponsible, unethical, and horrific treatment of a patient who was at the mercy of Danbury Ambulance and was turned away. Disabled. Left. Alone. In a parking lot. Wow.”
Ms Gorman noted, “A HART bus dispatcher was able to contact one of the drivers, Mr Lopez, to reroute his busy day. The dispatcher advised that he would pick [Ms Hickman] up at about 2:30 pm.
“Mr Lopez pulled his bus in almost to the minute and proceeded to assist the woman onto the bus — with a friendly, courteous hand and a smile,” Ms Gorman observed. “I’ve seen this particular driver on several occasions, always with the same pleasant, helpful demeanor. It is a great thing to see someone take such pride, care, and respect when they are in a position to help other people who need it. Thank you so very much for taking pride in your work and for genuinely caring for others.”
She closed her notes admonishing Danbury Ambulance. “You dropped the ball. I am glad to know that this story has a happy, safe ending in spite of you,” she wrote.
Contract In Process
At about the time this incident occurred, Danbury Ambulance was in the final stages of negotiating a three-year renewal contract with the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Association for paramedic services, which is partially subsidized by taxpayers.
A Danbury Ambulance paramedic is assigned to the town on a 24-hour basis, and a backup paramedic from the same company is contracted as a secondary responder for certain calls when and if needed, according to Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Association Chairman Malcolm McLachlan, who presented the contract proposal before the Board of Selectmen on June 26.
The proposed contract, which also must be approved by the finance board and council and would retroactively commence on July 1, if approved, would pay the company $347,600 for the first year, $356,798 in year two, and $366,272 in year three. There is also a one-year renewal option for 2021 for $376,030.
The cost for the 2017-18 contract year was more than the proposed 2018-19 service period, which was negotiated to save the town $4,850.
Secondary paramedic response would be billed separately at $195 per response in year one and $200 per response for the balance of the term. The prior contract reimbursed Danbury Ambulance $300 for each secondary Advanced Life Support (ALS) response.
Mr McLachlan told selectmen, who unanimously approved the new contract, that Newtown has maintained a “good working relationship” with the provider.
Newtown has budgeted $230,000 in the current fiscal year to contribute to paramedic service. The balance of the expense is made up by the local ambulance association, which bills qualified insured patients for the response similarly to many other volunteer ambulance services across Connecticut.