By Stephen Smoot
“When you invite people in, you get all kinds of issues and the infrastructure is not here to support it.”
Mike Alt, chief of the Upper Tract Volunteer Fire Department, explained that the growth of adventure tourism throughout the county could overstress the system in place and its resources. Several issues currently serve as barriers to county emergency services being able to respond and work as efficiently as they wish.
Alt also stressed that the growth of tourism and the jobs it brings is vital to Pendleton County.
One major issue that affects emergency response lies in how Medicare and Medicaid reimburse ambulance trips. Trips are assessed by measured distance between the incident location and the destination hospital.
Regardless of patient need, only trips to the nearest hospital get fully reimbursed. Alt says that “patients must be told that they are liable for the difference in payment now.”
If an individual has a heart attack in Seneca Rocks, for example, the ambulance service only received reimbursement for the distance to Grant Memorial Hospital, despite the fact that they have no cardiac unit. Patients who need to go to Harrisonburg, Virginia, Cumberland, Maryland, or other sites with cardiac beds must cover the difference.
In many cases patients struggle to pay those bills and the ambulance service falls behind as a result.
Alt also explained that insurance officials rely on Google Maps to judge reimbursement rates. Google Maps only marks the most direct route, not the safest or fastest directions to choose. “That’s what we have to go to Charleston about,” he said, “the reimbursement rates.
Reimbursement rate restrictions have hit emergency response services just as the cost of basic equipment has increased. Alt explained that “the price of equipment has quadrupled.” An ambulance that used to cost approximately $50,000 now has risen to $325,000. Cot prices have shot up 21 percent to more than $33,000.
Even worse, larger state emergency services buy in bulk as a hedge against long delivery times. Smaller agencies with restricted budgets cannot do the same. They often bear the brunt of delivery issues. Alt says, “It’s little agencies like us that suffer.”
Delivery times can take as long as three years, a frustration also felt by the school board when ordering buses and the sheriff’s department searching for new cruisers.
As Alt and Tina Eye described, in earlier years when a number of major employers were still located in Pendleton County, many would still pay wages when volunteer responders left on calls. This prevented the volunteers from shouldering the burden of lost wages in addition to saving lives. “People who are working can’t afford to go on calls,” Eye stated.
Additionally, the length of transport can keep a responder away for hours. Sometimes they have to stay gone all night, then work the next morning. Many also work outside the area and have to commute hours to and from work as well. Reservoirs of personal time have dried up, leaving even those who wish to volunteer often unable to do so. Eye shared that “once they work 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 hours, they don’t feel like staying up all night.”
Eye shared worries about response times. With emergency services struggling to recruit and add manpower, response times have suffered. “We’ve done a better job,” she explained, “but some are working or retired.”
One advantage that both Alt and Eye emphasized was the quality of the manpower serving Pendleton County now. They praised the volunteers who currently can do more to help.
Alt laid out that the needs of the emergency services include education, recruiting, retention, and reimbursement rates. “If we can fix that,” Alt says, “we can provide better service.”