Tennessee Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, says he wants to help local fire departments and social service providers find long-term solutions to the high volume of non-emergency 911 calls from aging and disabled Tennesseans who've fallen through the care cracks. But immediate solutions are needed too, he said, especially in rural communities.
Firefighters respond to almost all 911 calls, and increasingly - as the population ages - people turn to 911 for help with basic tasks such as getting down stairs, reaching the TV remote or turning on the lights.
Carter attended the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Health Council's senior health and aging committee's monthly meeting Wednesday. The group has collaborated with fire departments since January to connect people who call for help to agencies better equipped to meet their needs, including one man who called 911 more than 90 times in a month.
"We're not just reaching out to seniors. We're reaching out to people with disabilities who have no choice but to live alone, as well," said Capt. Skyler Phillips, EMS coordinator at the Chattanooga Fire Department. "The goal is to age in place. That's what we want to happen, if we can help them do that. But we can't have them aging in place when they're falling every day, when they can't get water, when they can't get food."
Starting this month, the Chattanooga Fire Department will house master of social work interns from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The plan is for interns to contact frequent callers, determine their needs and guide them to the right resources. If successful, the model could be replicated in other areas of the county and state, committee members said.
Carter said that's a definite step in the right direction, but rural departments need relief now, particularly the volunteer fire departments.
"They're having the same nightmare," he said. "They're all volunteers that have very little money. They're worried about their gas budget, and when they're burning fuel going out to get remote controls out of chairs, they're really hurting."
Other solutions posed by the committee include partnering with private nonprofit organizations, training other fire departments and applying for grants for lift devices to minimize injuries firefighters incur when lifting fallen callers. The group has also discussed relaxing qualifications for state Medicaid - TennCare - programs that provide homemaker and in-home care.
He encouraged the group to keep looking for solutions and promised to help on his end, but insinuated changes to TennCare rules are unlikely.
"That takes about nine months to accomplish, then you send it to Washington. ... We have to get a waiver for everything we do - you'd be looking at two years to get it done," Carter said. "Then if it has a fiscal note on it, it's not going anywhere. I think what we have to do is figure out how to do more with less."
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