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Staff shortages lead to long hours for private EMTs

Nathaniel Lee, an EMT for Superior Ambulance, loads his truck for its next run.
Daniel Konik
/
Ohio Public Radio
Nathaniel Lee, an EMT for Superior Ambulance, loads his truck for its next run.

Doctors and nurses are not the only medical professionals who have felt the stress of COVID. Emergency medical technicians are suffering with it too. Staffing shortages at Ohio’s ground and air ambulance companies are causing those who are left to make difficult choices.

Like other health professionals, EMTs have been struggling with long hours and an increase in patients to transport because of COVID – and of course, being exposed to the virus from the very beginning. While many hospitals have raised pay to attract and keep staff and have hired expensive traveling medical professionals, private ambulance companies haven’t been able to do that because their rates are set by the government and private contracts.

Ken Truax, who works at Superior Ambulance, a private company that does patient transport in five states, including Ohio, said the staff shortages have been difficult.

“It’s tough. It’s tough to deal with,” he said.

There was already a shortage of EMTs but the pandemic has made matters worse, he said. EMTs decide the low pay and high stress isn’t worth it, Truax said.

“So you go to Best Buy and get a job that pays equal. You go to McDonald's, you go to Thornton's. These are places that are paying equal to or higher than an EMT is making, starting out close to what paramedics are making," Truax said. "And then the hospitals now and doctor's offices are finding new ways to compete with us and say we'll hire paramedics and EMTs to do the jobs that nurses and nurse assistants have done. So they go there.”

It’s a headache for Raymond Jenkins, a dispatcher for Superior. When he gets calls from hospitals wanting patients transferred but he can’t get an EMT to them right away.

“I'm out of trucks. Like, I'm out of staff. I don't have anybody right now to send. It's going to be an hour and a half because I don't have anyone. And that kind of causes frustration,” Jenkins said.

Hospitals and nursing homes are struggling to handle the huge influx of patients. Sometimes, hospitals go on what’s known as emergency bypass, notifying EMTs that they can’t take any more. When that happens, Nathaniel Lee, clinical care manager at Superior, said it’s a problem.

“So when we're transporting a patient that's a critical patient to a facility that we expect is only five minutes away, seven minutes away, and they're on bypass, we immediately have to divert, and they won't accept that patient, and we have to go to another hospital system that's farther away. Possibly it might not have the needs that actually go to that patient, but we have to get that critical patient to the closest facility. Most Ers can handle just about everything, but then that patient will have to be transferred again to the appropriate neurological care or cardiac care at that point, wherever in the system that they need to go."

Dr. Ryan Cantzler works at a Columbus hospital. He’s also the medical director for Superior Ambulance. He said freeing up beds at hospitals is critical, but getting people transferred out when they no longer need hospital care can be a challenge.

“So the nursing home accepts the patient. You then have to call the ambulance squad to get the patient out of that bed and into the nursing home. If there's a shortage of the private ambulance system, that patient doesn't move,” Cantzler said.

That means a hospital bed cannot be freed up for others who need it. Cantzler said if EMTs could be paid more and private ambulance companies weren’t so stretched for dollars, it would ease the stress on the overall system.

“Hospitals got money. Community EMS got money. The larger community EMTS got more of the funding. Some of the smaller villages and townships that have their own EMS systems are still hurting, trying to get more staff involved," he said. "But the private EMS that sends our patients from hospital to hospital and hospital to home. They didn't get part of that money”

Cantzler said many of the patients transported by private companies go to nursing homes and rely on Medicaid. But Ohio’s Medicaid reimbursement rates are low – in the bottom 15% of the nation’s rates.