The launch of a prospective community paramedicine program ground to a halt Thursday, as a stalemate in collective bargaining negotiations between the city and firefighters association continued into its second month.
City officials said a grievance filed by the Corpus Christi Professional Firefighters Association forced administrators to turn down an $865,000 federal reimbursement grant that would have launched the program, which is intended to connect habitual 911 users with case management that would address their primary needs without resorting to emergency services. Doing so would free up first responders for more critical calls, advocates say.
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Carlos Torres, president of the association, said Thursday the grievance was filed because the union considers the implementation of such a program part of the collective bargaining contract, which has not been negotiated. City officials contend the chief, under existing provisions in the contract, has the right to implement the program.
The administrative burden and time required for the city to defend itself against the grievance would be too great of a strain for officials who must also meet the strict deadlines the grant funding is contingent upon, said city spokeswoman Kim Womack. The program would have seen 500 patient encounters from August through the beginning of October, according to city documents.
“This was unnecessary,” she said. “The community’s best interest should be at the heart of this whole issue.”
Blaming the union for the program’s demise is “outrageous,” said B. Craig Deats, an attorney who represents the association.
“Unions and cities arbitrate grievances all the time, and for them to claim our filing a grievance keeps them from accepting this grant and implementing this program defies common sense,” he said.
The city and the firefighters association have been locked in stalemate over contract negotiations since May 21, when city representatives delivered a cease and desist letter to union members during a scheduled collective bargaining meeting. The letter suspended negotiations, pending the association putting an end to its “Become a Hero” campaign, among other demands. City officials said the union was not bargaining in good faith through its public campaign, while association representatives argued the campaign did not violate negotiation ground rules, accusing the city of attempting to impinge on members’ First Amendment rights.
The city eventually sued, and the association filed a counterclaim shortly after. A court date in which the association will request the city’s suit be dismissed is scheduled for Aug. 6.
City and union representatives say they want to return to collective bargaining talks, but an agreement about bringing in a mediator has not been reached.
In the meantime the community paramedicine program won’t happen without the grant money, said Fire Chief Robert Rocha, who described the loss of the program as a disappointment.
“I wanted this program so bad,” he said. “It’s needed in the community.”
Intended to be a partnership between the Corpus Christi Fire Department, the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District, the community paramedicine program would have been staffed by two civilian paramedics and two nurses to address proliferating issues with those using 911 not for medical emergencies, but to seek primary care, Rocha said.
Between Jan. 1, 2013, and Oct. 1, 2013, 10 patients accounted for 582 calls for service, according to city statistics.
Had the program launched, hired personnel would have had the ability to proactively pay house calls to frequent 911 users and provide case management to connect patients with primary and specialty care services, he said. Staff would work with patients to create a health care plan, following up to ensure patients took their medication and made their doctors’ appointments. The program would have been funded out of the health district’s budget, Rocha added.
The City Council gave preliminary approval appropriating money to start the program July 8. The item was expected to return to the council for a second and final approval.
The grant funding would have covered more than two years of the program, Rocha said.
Torres said he didn’t oppose the program.
“We’re not against it,” he said. “We just want to talk about it at the table and come to a resolution there.”