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Ambulance companies concerned EMT and Paramedic shortage will impact Michigan response times

Posted at 8:34 AM, Nov 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-18 08:34:58-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — They are used to responding to your emergency. Now ambulance providers say they are facing an emergency. They are “hemorrhaging” workers. Statewide there are one thousand openings for EMTs and paramedics. It is leading to a labor shortage they say has the potential to put lives at risk.

7 Action News listened to hundreds of 911 calls around metro Detroit as we investigated the shortage. We often heard dispatchers tell other first responders, they simply didn’t yet have an ambulance available.

One call was for a woman with diabetes who was unconscious in Detroit.

“Engine 58 is en route. What medic is responding with us central?” Firefighters asked dispatchers.

There was a pause. Firefighters asked repeatedly when the ambulance would come.

Neighbors say firefighters were giving their friend CPR while they waited for the ambulance. It took 21 minutes for the ambulance to get there.

“In communities all around the State of Michigan, increasing delays in response times,” Matt Holtcamp, Operations Field Supervisor at Universal Ambulance Service, said is what you can expect.

Universal is the oldest ambulance provider in the state. Its leaders say it is facing one of the most severe labor shortages in history.

“It is a cliche in EMS. I can go make money working at McDonald’s right now and not worry about taking COVID home to my daughter. It is a valid point,” said Holtcamp.

“Covid has absolutely made it worse,” said Duncan Walker, President and General Manager of Universal Ambulance Service.

Walker says he is at half the staff he would like to be.

“If I could hire 100 people right now, I would do it,” said Walker.

“EMS is not an essential service. Legally,” said Angela Madden, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Ambulance Services.

Madden says one of the problems is while police and fire are considered essential services at the federal and state level, EMS are not essential.

This impacts the level of funding.

“We were born out of the interstate highway system. Before ambulances, the funeral home would respond to you if you got in an accident on the side of the highway. And you had one of two destinations, the hospital or the funeral home. There was no health care intervention for you,” she explains.

Now EMS provides high-tech life-saving care and under Medicaid and Medicare are still reimbursed as quote “ a supplier of transportation” which receives less than a provider of health care. A statewide survey found EMTs and paramedics make between $13 an hour and $25 an hour. Madden says the state recently passed a bill increasing reimbursement rates which will help some, but they still don’t cover the cost of the service.

“Medicare covers about 30 to 35% and the private payers and the non-insured are where that balancing act has been happening,” said Madden.

So what are the solutions?

Back to that 911 call in Detroit -The daughter of the woman who had to wait 21 minutes for an ambulance didn’t want to criticize first responders who gave her mom CPR and saved her life.

“These medical first responders save lives every day,” said Robert Distelrath, Second Deputy Fire Commissioner in Detroit.

Distelrath says Detroit Firefighters and EMS crews are being trained to do both to help the city address the shortage.

“We have about 200 medics on EMS. When the merger is complete we will have about 1000 medics,” he said.

Ambulance companies are also calling for a federal essential designation and a state bill that would fund scholarships to help people enter the field.

“If the pipeline does dry, it really does raise the question of what happens when you call 911,” said Walker.