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When the goal is getting to the ER fast and cheap, some choose Uber over 911

By Justine Griffin
Most hospitals in the Tampa Bay area don't track how often ride-sharing drivers drop off or pick up patients. But at Tampa General Hospital, pictured here, they are "here quite a bit over the course of a day," said spokesman John Dunn. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]

Matt Lavin had just arrived in Charlottesville, Va., for a business trip when he started feeling sick.

By the time he got to his hotel around 11 p.m., he felt excruciating pain.

"I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew something wasn’t right," said Lavin, an attorney who lived in Washington D.C. at the time but is also the medical director for a Florida-based chain of addiction recovery centers. He had good insurance through his employer, but still second-guessed calling an ambulance for help.

"My deductible was like $5,000 or something like that. And it was the beginning of the year. I didn’t know how much the ambulance was going to cost me, and I’m away from home in this hotel," Lavin said.

So he requested a ride on Uber.

The driver arrived in just three minutes, helped him into the car and sped to the hospital, with Lavin keeled over from intense pain his abdomen.

Later Lavin, 48, would find out his appendix burst. He ended up having emergency surgery that night. But Lavin says he saved himself thousands of dollars by choosing Uber, the ride-sharing company that connects passengers with taxi-like independent drivers through a smartphone app, instead of calling 911.

"I knew they would be fast," Lavin said of Uber. "But I think (the driver) was pretty freaked out. I was in a lot of pain and I had to lie down. He was new to Charlottesville and didn’t know where the hospital was. If I’d taken an ambulance, I would have gotten a bed right away. Instead I had to walk in and wait like anyone else. But I think I paid $20, which is much better than the $5,000 I paid the one time I was in a car accident."

Lavin is not alone. Ride-sharing drivers in Tampa Bay and beyond are noticing an uptick in rides to and from the emergency room as consumers try to avoid spending what could be thousands of dollars for an ambulance.

It’s an updated version of a role long played by cabs. What’s new is that the ride-sharing experience, with its ability to tell people how soon a car will arrive, is seen by many as more nimble and better suited to a spur-of-the-moment decision like rushing to the ER.

Dulce Maurer, who has been an Uber driver in St. Petersburg since July 2016 had no issues taking a bleeding passenger to the emergency room recently.

She said she accepted a ride from a passenger who was bleeding from his forehead when she picked him up at his house.

"I arrived in the back alley of a residence and a man got in with paper towels on his head," said Maurer, 32. "I saw his destination was the hospital and asked if he was OK or needed more napkins."

Maurer said the passenger had been drinking and slipped in the shower, where he cut his forehead open.

"He did not want to pay for an ambulance," she said. "(Uber) was really the best option for him. He was stitched up within 15 minutes at 3 a.m. and it was cheaper and faster."

Maurer said she didn’t mind helping him get to the hospital. It wasn’t that much different from the late night riders who sometimes have to use the puke bucket she permanently keeps in the back seat. But Maurer says she would draw the line if a woman was in labor or if someone was "bleeding profusely."

"I don’t want the liability of someone’s life," she said.

The decision to choose an Uber or Lyft ride over one with trained paramedics comes with some clear drawbacks.

"We’ve heard of this before, but my question is, what is the driver going to do if their passenger needs medical attention right away?" said Charlene Cobb, a spokeswoman with Sunstar, the company under contract with Pinellas County to provide ambulance and paramedic services. "A driver may not know which hospital to take you to, as some in the area specialize in certain things. Paramedics are trained to know that, and provide assistance on the way. In an emergency, seconds count."

Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft don’t openly condone this kind of service in the case of an emergency, even their websites share positive stories of drivers helping women in labor get to the hospital on time.

"We’re grateful our service has helped people get to where they’re going when they need it the most," said Javi Correoso, a spokesman with Uber. "However, it’s important to note that Uber is not a substitute for law enforcement or medical professionals. In the event of any medical emergency, we encourage riders and driver-partners to call 911."

Both Uber and Lyft partner with hospital chains to offer discounted rides for routine appointments or medical services, but not emergency rides. Those services aren’t available in Tampa Bay yet. During Hurricane Irma, Lyft and Uber offered relief rides to get people in need to shelter.

Most hospitals in the Tampa Bay area don’t track how often ride-sharing drivers drop off or pick up patients, but at Tampa General, they are "here quite a bit over the course of a day," said spokesman John Dunn.

Cobb, the Sunstar spokeswoman, doesn’t deny that an ambulance ride can be expensive.

In Pinellas, she said, consumers can buy a supplemental insurance policy through the county that covers ambulance fees and complements the insurance they already have.

She said she hopes that costs can come down in the future by training emergency dispatchers to help decide when an ambulance ride is really needed.

"There’s a program in Texas where a nurse is on the line and helps people make an informed decision on whether or not they need an ambulance ride to the hospital if it’s a non-emergency," Cobb said.

"People call for ambulances and often times they don’t need them," she said. "But when you need medical care right away, there is no substitute."

Jeff Abbaticchio didn’t need an ambulance ride when he was headed to Palms of Pasadena Hospital for a hernia surgery, which is why he chose Uber.

"I knew I couldn’t drive myself and the last thing I wanted to do was to ask a friend or family member to get up so early to drop me off," said Abbaticchio, the director of marketing for the Sirata Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach.

Abbaticchio said he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

"Both times, the rides were incredibly nice. It was so early in the morning and the driver was on time and it wasn’t expensive," he said.

But for Lavin, the threat of exorbitant medical bills will always make him second guess calling for ambulance.

"Getting stuck with a bill like that, it can change your life. It will ruin your credit," he said. "And that’s for someone who has insurance. Imagine if you’re uninsured or on state-funded insurance. That’s not going to cover much of anything."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.