In recent years the financial struggles of West Virginia hospitals have been repeatedly highlighted with the bankruptcy and closure of several facilities. These concerns have been elevated with the COVID pandemic.
“But overlooked in these discussions is the critical financial condition of many of the state’s emergency medical services agencies,” says Chris Hall, executive director of the West Virginia EMS Coalition.
“EMS agencies in West Virginia faced significant financial challenges even prior to COVID-19.” Hall said. “Their problems have been compounded with the strains caused by the pandemic. Without additional support to help EMS providers, many communities may face the loss of emergency ambulance service.”
The State of West Virginia provides very little direct financial support for EMS agencies, Hall said.
“In fact due to repeated budget cuts, the Office of EMS within DHHR has increasingly relied on fees assessed to EMS agencies, paramedics and EMTs to support its regulatory functions. West Virginia also lacks the funding for emergency medical services on the state level that is provided by neighboring states.”
Other states support their EMS services in various ways, including fees attached to vehicle registration fees, surcharges on traffic violations and seat belt fines. ”The WV EMS Coalition long has advocated for similar types of funding to support EMS in our state,” Hall said.
“Unlike many hospitals, EMS organizations can’t layoff or furlough employees to conserve funds during this crisis. Personnel and units must continue to be on standby to respond to medical emergencies 24/7 or people will suffer. Heart attacks, overdoses and car wrecks continue during a pandemic.”
Hall noted the strain of the COVID pandemic has created substantial burnout among EMTs, paramedics and other personnel. Retirements have increased. With wages rising across all professions, EMS personnel are leaving for other careers. Some are moving to states with better funded EMS systems where they can earn substantially higher wages.
Meanwhile, with hospitals being understaffed, the patient care burden at emergency rooms across the state has been shifted to the EMS agencies. Ambulance crews are being forced to remain with patients for hours in the emergency room waiting for patients to be transferred to beds.
The EMS agencies are not compensated for the extra time in the emergency room and, even worse, the ambulance and crew are taken out of service to the community during the wait meaning they can’t respond to other medical emergencies.
“The EMS community is grateful for Gov. Justice’s recent announcement that $10 million in state funding will be directed to first responders, Hall said. “EMS providers feel like they’ve been overlooked during this COVID pandemic, and this funding is a welcome sign of appreciation for the struggles they have experience.
“We are optimistic this funding can serve as a first step towards stabilizing the EMS system in West Virginia and provide a short-term bridge that will allow time for the Governor, Legislature, and other stakeholders to work together on a plan to address the long-term workforce and readiness needs of ambulance agencies in West Virginia.”