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County Hall Corner: EMS in Crisis

One feature of the current County Commissioner board is that they are not deaf to concerns of the community. Unfortunately, being willing to listen does not necessarily mean they can do much about the problem. One of these concerns is the ongoing problems of volunteer fire companies and EMS service. In July of 2017, the

One feature of the current County Commissioner board is that they are not deaf to concerns of the community. Unfortunately, being willing to listen does not necessarily mean they can do much about the problem. One of these concerns is the ongoing problems of volunteer fire companies and EMS service. In July of 2017, the commissioners sponsored a symposium on the difficulties facing local fire companies, and this year, on Thursday, September 27th, they hosted a Lycoming County Emergency Medical Services Summit.

The Summit was held at the Trade & Transit Center II and featured a buffet dinner for the approximately 100 local government officials and EMS providers, prior to a presentation of a high-powered panel of professional experts who spoke and answered questions about the growing challenges in providing EMS service to county residents. It had all the makings of a well-designed and informative session.

But the sad result of many of the attendees at the conclusion of the two-and-a-half hour summit was that the answers to the problems are going to be very, very difficult to find. It begins with the personnel in the ambulance itself. In the past, the ambulance was simply a transport service, whereas today it has become a health care provider. Since the passage of Pennsylvania’s first EMS law in 1985, the requirements have grown to the point where they are now expected to provide emergency care both on-site and throughout transport.

To get a basic life support ambulance, staffed with two EMTs, out the door costs around $600 per call on average, according to the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania. However, the reimbursements EMS agencies receive are significantly lower than this, as much 60 to 70 percent below cost for Medicaid patients.

The ambulance needs staff to support it, and these are getting harder and harder to find. It takes nearly two hundred hours of training to just become an EMT, yet the going rate of compensation is less than a fast food or custodial employee. Emergency responders, as they are known by, must deal with every kind of emergency, some even at risk to their own health and safety. The rise in opioids and narcotics means that even treating individuals can result in real dangers to these health providers.

Low pay and long hours among emergency service personnel and the rising costs of providing service with the subsequent difficulty in recovering costs have combined for the current state of affairs. Heather Sharar, executive director of the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania, who spoke the EMS Symposium, noted that between 2012 and 2016, the state has lost around 150 basic life support services and at least 11 advanced life support providers.

Lycoming County suffers the same challenges as the rest of the commonwealth, and it will take real leadership from the county down to the local level to deal with this growing crisis.

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