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A Cure for Chronic Callers

BALTIMORE -- Several of the repeat callers to Baltimore's emergency 911 system haven't called in months. That's because a city health advocacy unit has figured out what ails them and connected them to services that would help them. Why didn't someone think of that before? The chronic problem of repeat callers has taxed the city's 911 response system for years and likely contributed to higher health care costs in Maryland.

This year, the Fire Department finally decided to investigate. Of 150,000 annual calls to 911, the department found that 2,000 were made by the same 91 people. That prompted a review of the top 25 callers by Baltimore Healthcare Access, a quasi-public group that links people to health care. Here's a sampling of what reviewers found:

The reasons people repeatedly called 911 often weren't solely because of a medical problem or a lack of health insurance. Instead, callers were having trouble accessing the health care they were entitled to.

The 52-year-old man who made 81 calls to 911 is a case in point. He suffers from kidney disease and is confined to a wheelchair. A Healthcare Access caseworker found his living conditions to be deplorable. But when she tried to arrange for a home health aide, there was an 18- to 24-month waiting list.

One 89-year-old woman with high blood pressure made 41 calls to 911 in a year. She had health insurance and a doctor, but with no family to rely on, she was at a loss for whom to turn to when she felt sick and vulnerable. She has since been reconnected to a home health aide who visits weekly.

Baltimore health officials have done city residents - and taxpayers - a service by uncovering the causes of this abuse of the 911 system. Now they need to take what they've learned and push the health care system and government to respond. A priority should be increasing access to home health aides for those who can't afford them.

A full report on Healthcare Access' findings is forthcoming. It should provide the impetus for city officials, health care providers and patient advocates to identify and track callers to 911 who are monopolizing the system.

As the good doctor Benjamin Franklin observed, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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