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Legislative Interims: Needs, challenges of West Virginia EMS departments reviewed

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The legislative priorities of West Virginia’s first responders were discussed during this week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services.

While the absence of a quorum prevented the interim committee from furthering any business during the second day of January’s Interim Legislative Session., Chris Hall, executive director of the W.Va. EMS Coalition, was on-hand to provide updates regarding the needs and challenges of the state’s EMS departments. 

“The W.Va. EMS Coalition represents all segments of EMS providers in West Virginia,” Hall said, adding the coalition’s Board of Directors includes representatives from both nonprofit and for-profit EMS agencies. 

“The challenges that we have seen with EMS are not unique to West Virginia,” Hall continued. “We’ve seen the news reports nationally of EMS agencies struggling. But here in West Virginia we have some issues that are particularly compounding those issues.” 

Hall cited the primarily rural nature of the state as an obstacle, as well as West Virginia’s aging population. Additionally, according to Hall, West Virginia is “ground zero” for the opioid epidemic, which has contributed to “burn out and stress” and resulting in an increase of emergency calls. 

“I think we’ve made substantial progress towards fixing, what I consider, the four ‘Rs’,” Hall told committee members. “Recruitment and retention, reimbursement, and readiness.”

Hall further explained that $2 million in CARES Act funding has been put toward the first two ‘Rs’ – recruitment and retention, saying, “We’ve had the media campaign to raise awareness of careers. We’ve funded training that has brought on more EMTs and paramedics into the state.”

Hall added that additional mental health resources, and increasing Medicare reimbursements to 100% have been “a step in the right direction.” 

“Again, that doesn’t solve the issue as those rates are still below the cost in most cases for delivering the care,” Hall noted. “But the increase couldn’t have come at a better time for most of our agencies. It didn’t really help them gain a whole lot, but it did help offset the rising costs of fuel.”

According to Hall, while other parts of the country are looking to West Virginia as the model for Medicaid reimbursements, the state remains significantly behind others in terms of readiness.

“Every one of the states around us have some form of state level funding to support EMS,’ Hall said. “In most cases, that’s a grant program – but there’s other direct support provided.”

In conclusion, Hall told the committee, “We feel like, at a minimum, the state could at least fund the Office of EMS adequately to allow it to do its regulatory duties without straining our nonprofit volunteers with the license and certification fees.”

According to both the Office of EMS and the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), Hall noted, license and certification fees are “at tops $200,000 to $300,000 per year.” 

At the conclusion of Hall’s presentation, Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, offered words of support, saying, “You’re (Hall) pointing out the issues that a lot of us are aware of, and are trying to chip away at.”

“We do know, I believe, there’ve been 800 – and a little bit more – persons who have gone to EMT classes,” Statler noted. “I’m not sure what the passage-rate is, but I know that it is up if I’m correct on that. The passage-rate is up, so that means we’re getting that accomplished.”

However, despite the increase in passage-rate, Statler warned that these new EMTs are still “in the starting stages” of their careers. 

“Even with all those new recruits hitting the field,” Statler continued, “I’m not saying they aren’t helping, but they’re probably not at the potential they will be given time. So we know we need to keep assistance there.”

“I’m hoping that the governor will look at this – and take a great look at it,” Statler added.