|The crisis over West Virginia Medical Services was mostly ignored by the 2023 WV Legislature and in Calhoun the crisis has been politicized, blaming local people. - Bob Weaver|
by SHAYLA KLEINTUE, WCHS TV
A funding crisis for emergency medical services is causing a lack of ambulances in rural counties in West Virginia with more than a dozen agencies providing 911 response ceasing operations over the past year.
While the closures could be putting lives at risk, a bill designed to provide permanent funding for those services failed in the Legislature.
"Many people would be shocked to learn that if they call 911 in their local community, there may not be an ambulance available to respond," Chris Hall, executive director of the WV EMS Coalition, said.
Some EMS agencies are struggling to afford new equipment or pay employees fairly, putting a huge strain on emergency response across the state.
"At one point, we lost 1,100 EMS personnel in the state. We're trying to recoup those, but we're not able to train them fast enough to recoup those who are leaving," Hall said.
West Virginia has the lowest mean annual wage for EMTs and paramedics compared to bordering states. Employees often earn $2 to $3 more per hour by crossing the border.
"We might have a truck in your local community, but we don't have somebody to put on it," Hall said.
Funding for these services in larger counties often comes from levies. Without that funding, EMS services rely on ambulance service billing to stay open, and they receive no payment in cases where the patient refuses to be transported, even if care was provided at the scene.
When EMS services lose funding, agencies close. Fifteen agencies providing 911 response in the state ceased operations over the past year. Three of those agencies closed last month.
"People are afraid to really speak out about the lack of availability of ambulances because they don't want to cause panic within their communities," Hall said.
Rural EMS agencies are not dispatched frequently enough and often travel farther distances to make enough money to be ready 24-7, 365 days a year, the coalition.
A bill to provide state funding for EMS was introduced during the 2023 legislative session, but debates over how the bill should be funded stalled the bill. Del. Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha, said the debate was over whether the bill should be funded through an increase in homeowners' insurance or lottery proceeds.
"We have to drive through those counties," Ferrell said. "If you have an accident in that county, guess who's going to respond to you?"
The West Virginia EMS Coalition said counties that have levy funding also are stretched thin because they respond to neighboring counties in need.
Ferrell believes the situation is urgent and should come up if there is a special session, but he said it also could be addressed during an interim session so it wouldn't cost extra money to have lawmakers gather.