Osborne and Gaebler's Reinventing Government has sparked discussion amongst elected officials, civil servants, the media, and the general public regarding advantages of privatizing government services. Its support stems from an effort to provide services to municipalities while reducing taxpayer expenditure. Many echo the sentiment of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who said, “It is not government's obligation to provide services, but to see that they're provided.” Even in the area of public safety, privatization has found a “market.”
In many localities, privatizing Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is a popular and successful method for providing ambulance services. Privately owned ambulance services staff and respond to medical emergencies in a given community as part of the 9–1–1 emergency response system. Regulations for acceptable response times, equipment, and other essential components of EMS systems are specified by contract. This allows the municipality oversight of the service provided, but it does not provide the service directly. As will be discussed, this “contracting-out” model has many benefits.
Privatizing EMS services is a decision based not only on cost-savings, but on accountability. A thorough evaluation must be utilized in the selection process. Issues of efficiency, effectiveness, quality, customer service, responsiveness, and equity must be considered by the government, in addition to cost of service.
The uncertain future of health care in the United States has led those in EMS to look beyond the field's internal market to explore additional opportunities for expanding and redefining its roles beyond emergency care. It is important, however, to consider how emergency medical care, the original role of EMS, can be best delivered. Responding to emergencies is not just one of the functions involved in this field, it is the principal function from which public perception of EMS is formed, and from which support for entering other markets can be fostered.
The purpose of this paper is to present several important concepts and considerations that public officials, medical directors, and the public must be aware of when contemplating the possibility of privatizing their Emergency Medical Services. A review of the general concepts of privatization and issues of accountability will be presented, referencing policy experts, followed by an examination of how advocates of privatization might see these issues as they relate to providing EMS. The conclusion will present prescriptions for both municipal and commercial ambulance providers.