Opinion: Don't leave EMS behind in virus recovery

Ron Slagell

It’s no secret that the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic are the health care professionals, risking their own well-being to help those who are suffering. This includes doctors, nurses and EMS professionals, who are often overlooked.

At a time of so much uncertainty, EMS personnel are playing a critical role on the front lines of this global health crisis. With every emergency call paramedics and EMTs are risking their health, as each call could result in exposure to COVID-19. 

That’s only the beginning of troubles facing EMS in Michigan. Ambulance services are grappling with staff being exposed to the virus while sometimes not knowing if they’ll get paid for the care. Additionally, many people are afraid to call 911 for help, even when experiencing life-threatening medical emergencies.

EMS agencies across the state are experiencing a significant reduction in calls, with some areas seeing as high as a 50% drop, Slagell writes.

EMS agencies across the state are experiencing a significant reduction in calls, with some areas seeing as much as a 50% drop. Hospitals and EMS are prepared and available to safely care for patients with medical emergencies, and Michigan’s residents should not jeopardize their health or their lives by avoiding calling for assistance. 

The Michigan Association of Ambulance Services, and its member EMS agencies who serve 67% of Michigan counties are asking the state and federal government to make sure EMS is not left behind in recovery efforts.

To remain on the front lines of this pandemic and beyond, EMS agencies need financial assistance to maintain current staffing and resources to perform life-saving work.

As the COVID-19 relief funding becomes available, we ask our state leaders to use some of these funds to ensure we are paid for our work. Even before this crisis, the Medicaid reimbursement rate for ambulance services was far too low. In fact, there has not been a legislative increase in Medicaid rates in more than 20 years. Michigan’s ambulance providers are asking for a much-needed Medicaid rate increase to help us address skyrocketing costs,  if only temporarily to deal with this crisis. 

While we appreciate the education proposal recently announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, we ask for flexibility to include training that will truly benefit EMS. Our crisis is not getting our workforce a college degree; it’s getting more people to enter the EMS field and allowing workers to advance their EMS training. Including tuition reimbursement for paramedic and EMT training programs, which are often provided outside of traditional colleges and universities, would be a game-changer for us.   

There are many times when treating patients at their home is most appropriate and ambulance transport to a hospital is not needed, especially during this pandemic. That is why we are asking Medicare to reimburse for providing on-site treatment. It is common sense for ambulance service providers to be paid for these medical treatments.

We pride ourselves on being there for Michigan residents in their time of need, but change is essential for our work to be sustainable. These are difficult times and we certainly don’t want to make them worse by not being able to help people who need us. We are sounding the warning bell, because although our ambulance service will survive this crisis, change is desperately needed. Now is the time to make sure ambulances are appropriately paid for the services we provide, so we can continue to serve Michigan residents with the life-saving assistance they depend on.

Ron Slagell is president and CEO of Emergent Health Partners, and past president of Michigan Association of Ambulance Services.