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EMS agencies feel slighted after special session denial

EMS workers across the state were left in dismay after their request to Gov. Jim Justice for inclusion in a special legislative session this week was denied.

In a joint letter to the governor on Aug. 1, the West Virginia EMS Coalition and West Virginia State Fireman’s Association asked to be included on the special session call.

EMS personnel from around the state had planned to make the trip to Charleston in support of the bill but were called off by coalition leaders after the bill was not one of the 44 items Justice called out Sunday evening.

“At this stage, we cannot in good faith ask our paramedics, EMTs and other EMS personnel to come to Charleston tomorrow diminishing emergency response resources in local communities when it appears there is little chance of EMS receiving help during the special session,” said EMS Coalition Executive Director Chris Hall in a Sunday press release.

“We were surprised, especially because of the wide support we had from both the House and the Senate for a bill that made a lot of sense and passed in both houses during the regular session,” said Forest Weyen, executive director of Monongalia Emergency Medical Services and WV EMS Coalition board member.

HB 3153 would have provided funding to EMS and fire departments through an increase in the insurance premium tax. It was brought before the legislature during the regular session earlier this year and had overwhelming support from lawmakers, passing in the House of Delegates 82-11. The Senate voted 33-0 in support of the measure, but the bill died in the final hours after lawmakers could not resolve differences involving amendments to the bill.

With support from both sides, they thought the bill had a good chance of being on the special session call.

“I think that we thought this was going to be some technicality, some negotiation on some stuff,” Weyen said, “and to come out with nothing is just very, very shocking.”

Currently, West Virginia is the only state in the area that does not provide permanent direct state assistance to EMS agencies for equipment, training, or operations – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia all have dedicated funding for EMS.

According to a statement from the coalition, there have been at least 15 EMS agencies responding to 911 calls that have ceased operations since 2022 and now without the additional funding they anticipate more will close.

“Beyond these closures, there are numerous EMS agencies that remain in operation but are unable to dispatch an ambulance at certain times due to funding and staffing issues,” the statement read.

“We don’t need tons of funding,” Weyen explained, “but we need a little bit of support for us to adequately cover the citizens of West Virginia.”

Weyen said that many agencies are just looking for a “safety net” that will always be there when everything else fails.

“I think you have got to find ways to ensure they are there, that they’re adequately funded, and provide the services we expect from them,” he said.

Ambulance agencies are only reimbursed by insurance when they physically transport a patient somewhere. If they are called and the patient refuses to be transported, they do not get reimbursed. When responding to scenes like car accidents or drug overdoses, which they do frequently, they often do not transport patients, so even if treatment is given on the scene, they are not paid for that service.

Because of this, many agencies rely on county and local levies and fundraisers that don’t provide permanent means of funding and can take away valuable time from staff and volunteers that could be spent elsewhere.

“People’s time is finite,” Weyen said. “Especially when you have volunteer or partial volunteer agencies. If you have four hours a week, do you want somebody raising money to buy a fire truck or an ambulance or do you want to spend four hours a week learning how to extricate someone from an electric car or treat a new cardiac disease?

“They’re here to do a duty,” he said, “and I think that’s one thing we’ve got to remember.”

Despite not including the bill in the special session, Justice expressed a desire to get the parties together in the coming months to work out a long-term solution.

“I hope that that happens because we have got to find sustainable solutions for your emergency services – both EMS and fire,” Weyen said.

Hall said that EMS personnel were appreciative of $10 million that Justice directed to the newly created EMS Salary Enhancement Fund, but that was one-time funding directed to counties to provide salary enhancements and supplementals.

The governor did offer aid to fire departments with surplus funds until a more permanent solution can be found but did not provide any interim funding for EMS agencies.

“No funding was included in the current budget that provides direct aid to EMS agencies to assist with operational expenses such as trucks, insurance, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and other fixed costs associated with maintaining readiness,” Hall said.

The statement from the EMS Coalition concludes “While we recognize the governor and certain members of the legislature may prefer to support fire and EMS through a source other than the insurance surcharge, we are disappointed the governor would aid fire departments with surplus funds pending a permanent solution while ignoring the equally significant needs of EMS.”