A confidential and free service, Columbia University Emergency Medical Services is widely misunderstood by students due to a lack of clarity surrounding its cost. While CUEMS itself does not charge, students can be left to cover external transport expenses incurred when CUEMS is tending to another patient and a New York City ambulance is dispatched instead, a fact that can dissuade some from using the resource.
Still colloquially referred to as CAVA (Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance) despite having changed its name 15 years ago, CUEMS is a New York state-certified emergency medical transport service run entirely by student volunteers and has an average dispatch time of four minutes, according to CUEMS director Alexander Meshel, CC ’18. In comparison, the dispatch time for the New York City Fire Department is nine and a half minutes.
“Anything that CUEMS does will not be billed. We do not take your social security number, we do not charge you. If we transport you to a hospital, the transport is free,” Nikola Danev, CC ’20 and CUEMS member-at-large, said. “Nothing that we do will cost you money, regardless of whether you’re a student or not.”
However, due to the existing lack of clarity that surrounds CUEMS, students have expressed an uncertainty about the cost of the service that might deter them from calling.
“I have two friends who made a pact with each other that if something ever happened, don’t call CAVA because they can’t afford it,” Lucy Danger, BC ’21, said. “It’s sort of joke because obviously safety comes before everything else, but it’s also sort of true.”
When CUEMS is not immediately available to provide emergency care, Public Safety will dispatch an ambulance via 911, which can cost up to hundreds of dollars. Columbia does not subsidize the cost of ambulances called by Public Safety.
This situation only arises when CUEMS is busy with another call, according to Danev, which can last from anywhere between 15 minutes to over an hour. Danger is one such student who had to pay for a ride in an ambulance because CUEMS was with another patient when a resident adviser called Public Safety on her behalf.
“A lot of the confusion around my experience is more to do with insurance, but if it had been CAVA [who came to pick me up], it might not have even been a problem to begin with because I wouldn’t have been charged anything,” Danger said.
Without an assurance that CUEMS will always be free, students like Danger and Erin Ergun, BC ’21, remain unsure about calling Public Safety to seek medical attention.
“They [CUEMS] were overall very nice … but especially if you’re calling for someone else, you don’t know their financial state,” Ergun said. “Obviously it’s better to seek medical care and deal with the cost later than have worse issues, but it’s a dual-edged sword.”
Recently, however, CUEMS has been focusing on improving outreach to help students understand the full scope of its services.
“Every year there have been bigger and bigger pushes at [New Student Orientation Program],” Meshel said. “CUEMS is emphasized so heavily now during NSOP that every student knows, basically, that for medical emergencies or if something happens on campus, you’re calling Public Safety for CUEMS.”
These efforts have been noticed on campus, especially by incoming first-years who have had the least experience with CUEMS.
“During NSOP, two people came to talk to our floor and one of them was on CAVA, so he told us a lot about it,” Aeshna Chandra, CC ’21, said. “They told us exactly what to do, how to call, what they do when they come, and what are the benefits. It was pretty clear and self-explanatory the way he explained it.”
CUEMS remains a primary source of care on campus, one that provides a more personal form of treatment.
“It’s very beneficial when you have a student being your EMT rather than someone who works for the fire department or a medic that works at a hospital because we can actually empathize,” Danev said. “We’re students here, we go through the same things and we also know the campus resources.”