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'It’s been a nightmare': EMS leaders warn industry on verge of collapse

They say underfunding, staffing shortages to blame
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Posted at 5:30 PM, Mar 14, 2022

GENEVA, Ohio — During a recent Ohio EMS Chiefs Association meeting, board members pointed to the mix of staffing and supply shortages, as well as funding issues, as the driving forces behind major issues eroding their industry.

“The state of the EMS industry is on the verge of collapse,” Eric Burns, vice president of Tri-Village Joint Ambulance District in Darke County said. “If we don’t do something quickly, I think EMS as we know it is going to fall apart.”

When a 911 call is made, you expect an ambulance to show up. But what happens when it doesn’t?

It's a question Cody Buskirk knows well. His mother passed away last month, after he says she waited for two hours for an ambulance to arrive at her rehabilitation center.

"I was furious," he said. "Two hours of her waiting there for someone to get her, that was a death penalty right there."

Buskirk told News 5 his mother passed away as crews were loading her into an ambulance when it finally showed up. The ambulance was supposed to transport her to a hospital a mile and a half away.

A GoFundMe to help his family handle finances surrounding his mother's death has been set up and can be viewed by clicking here.

"I don’t want people to brush this under the rug," Buskirk added. "We should be confident that we can call an ambulance and they’ll be there for us when we need them."

On top of Buskirk's situation, Vince Gildone also wonders more often nowadays about the idea of ambulances not being able to show up when called.

When the pandemic began, Gildone’s staff at Northwest Ambulance in Geneva consisted of 10 full-time EMTs and around 30 on call. Today, that on-call auxiliary staff is about half and Gildone told News 5 there’s no new names at his doorstep waiting to join.

“I think EMS is in trouble,” Gildone said. “It’s been a nightmare. It was a career path before and now it’s not being looked at as a career path by most people.”

It’s an industry that nowadays pays about the same as some fast-food restaurants, and on top of people not liking the pay, Gildone said the earlier days of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 scared away quite a few staffers.

To make matters worse, Gildone said supply chain issues have made it harder to repair or replace aging equipment.

“To get a new truck used to take three months, now it’s 18 months,” he added. “[This industry has] been ignored and it's been shoestring-funded for many years, and I think COVID-19 was the thing that pushed us over the edge.”

The board members told News 5 the issue starts first and foremost with funding, with much of theirs coming from reimbursements from programs such as Medicaid.

“When I'm only getting $98 per call, it’s hard to maintain a budget and maintain good equipment and staffing relying on those types of reimbursements,” Burns added. “I worry about who is taking the place of us older ones getting ready to retire.”

And keep in mind, those reimbursements, they say, only come through if someone is transported to a hospital; meaning if care is declined when an ambulance shows up, the ambulance company doesn’t get paid.

“We’re almost treated as a trucking company,” Todd Shroyer, Coshocton County EMS, said. “If a trucking company isn’t hauling freight, they’re not making money. As EMS, if we’re not hauling patients, we’re not making money. Everything we do that doesn’t involve transport, there’s no reimbursement.”

Right now, all 50 states classify police and fire departments as essential services, which means they are required by the government and as a result, those departments can gain access to additional funding.

However, when it comes to EMS, only 11 states classify EMS as an essential service, with Ohio as one of the 39 states that does not.

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States that classify EMS as an essential service include Oregon, Washington, Utah, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Delaware, Connecticut, and West Virginia according to the National Association of State EMS Officials.

“To think EMS is not considered essential, I can't even imagine how that slipped through the cracks at some point,” Eric Burgess, president of the Ohio EMS Chiefs Association, said.

Burgess, who oversees Delaware County EMS, estimates local EMS budgets only amount to about one-fourth of the budgets of fire and police departments.

This coalition plans to lobby in Columbus later this year in hopes that lawmakers will put them closer to a level playing field with other first responders when it comes to attracting new talent.

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A Northwest Ambulance District crew responds to a call in Geneva, Ohio.

“We are having people retire, we have people who say, ‘it’s enough, I'm getting out of the business and I'm doing something else,’ and we’re not bringing new people in fast enough to replace the people as they’re leaving,” Burgess said.

A cycle of problems with the power to pummel a profession.

“Until we fix the reimbursement issue, we can't really get our wages where they need to be,” Shroyer explained. “And until we can get our wages where they need to be, I'm not sure how we’re going to attract people into the business.”

“We frequently talk about when you call an ambulance and there isn't one to send,” Gildone said. “That's clearly something we need to think about and could happen. I think COVID-19 has forever changed how we do business and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”