Editorial Cartoon

It’s easy to see the problems with ambulance service response times in Floyd County and Eastern Kentucky.

They’re not hiding it because they can’t. The problem is up front and personal to people who have called for ambulances and have had to wait for an hour or hours for care.

The ambulance company serving this region is new to Floyd County, but it’s been in this business for years, serving all over the country in communities much like our own. This company, Lifeguard, through its parent company, bought another ambulance company that had to fold because of funding in Floyd County last year. It marked two ambulance companies that had to fold because running an ambulance service is just financially taxing.

We implore our readers to understand the layers of this problem. It’s not just one thing. It’s like an onion. There are many layers.

The people who run Lifeguard and who ran now-closed Trans-Star and Left Beaver Ambulance are humans, and we all know humans are far from perfect and prone to mistakes. But those problems, whatever they may be, make up only one layer of this problem, and it’s a problem — better yet, a set of problems — that hinder ambulances services in rural areas across the country.

The underlying problem that people don’t usually see or understand is how the federal government reimburses ambulances for the services they provide. You can’t stock and equip ambulances with the equipment they need with only pennies. It’s expensive, and as Trans-Star and Left Beaver found out, sometimes it’s prohibitively so.

Wheelwright Fire Chief Daniel P. Gullett has emphasized that issue more than once, reporting that reimbursement rates are too low to keep these ambulances afloat, especially in an area like this, where loads of residents are on Medicare or Medicaid. On top of that, ambulance services face problems with people who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay their ambulance bill at all.

And again, that’s just another layer.

Somewhere in the weeds also lies another blaring problem for ambulance services in rural areas like ours — the people who staff them, something else Gullett and other officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about.

Emergency medical technicians and paramedics are among the first people on the scene in wrecks. They are called to homes where people are dead or dying. They see, first hand, things that would make most grown men and women cry. Yet, their job is to be there, to save the life of those they can and provide the care that people need during the worst times of their lives. We have found numerous arrest citations that tell stories about EMTs being assaulted — verbally and physically — while they are responding to calls and doing their job. It’s not an easy job at all.

That kind of work isn’t something that just any person can do. It’s like how being a firefighter or police officer — someone who risks their lives for others — isn’t a job that every person can accomplish either. It takes a special type of person to put themselves out on a line like this.

And the problem is that those basic job requirements makes it harder for ambulance companies to recruit employees. When staffing is short, the EMTs who are working extra hours burn out, and there goes the ability of that ambulance to respond when needed.

And that’s not the only issue causing the ambulance response problem in Eastern Kentucky, and we dare say, across the country.

In addition to those woes, the educational system of paramedics is set up so that they could earn that certification in the time it would take them to become a nurse — a job that would pay them much more and likely provide better benefits than a struggling ambulance service could.

These are just a few of the layers to the ambulance response problems this county and region have been experiencing of late.

It’s not one thing. It’s many.

And that’s why having an ambulance company like Lifeguard paying students get certified and offering incentives to get them to further that education is so important.

On Wednesday, Lifeguard officials honored 21 graduates of that program — 21 people who are now working to help people in need throughout the region, and they also announced the company will hold another class to hire even more up-and-coming EMTs.

We have to give them credit for that.

We also have to give credit to the Prestonsburg City Council and its efforts to hit the ambulance response problem head-on by considering a partnership with Lifeguard and/or creating its own ambulance service.

We’re not going to make an assertion about which road Prestonsburg should take in that regard, but we will say knowing that Floyd County’s elected officials are working on it is reassuring. And they deserve credit for that effort, too.

We know this issue is personal to every family in Floyd County. And we suspect that, just as the problem is multi-layered, so should the solution be.

This is an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation we’re facing. And the solution will come when those we elect locally, statewide and nationally, as well as ambulance companies, the people they employ (or could employ) and our residents get on board, roll up their sleeves and start working for the safety and wellbeing of the people who live here — and nothing more.

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