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County leaders say rural EMS services in Kentucky continue to face staffing challenges

Paul Long
Flickr (Creative Commons License)

County leaders in Kentucky say rural emergency medical services continue to struggle with staffing their ambulances.

The Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services’s Emergency Medical Service Task Force met earlier this week to discuss how best to assist EMS services in the state’s rural counties.

Speaking to the committee, Owen County Judge-Executive Casey Ellis said many rural counties, such as his own, do not have a hospital located in their borders. He said this makes EMS even more vital for medical transport with the nearest hospital at least a 30 minute drive away. Ellis said his county’s EMS is limited by its small workforce and pay raises are not enough to combat the issue.

“Since I was elected in 2015, we've more than doubled our average salary wage for EMS. Unfortunately, the staffing shortages is more critical today than ever before,” Ellis said.

Shellie Hampton, director of government affairs for the Kentucky Association of Counties, shared statistics with the committee about EMS licensing and funding models. . She said while a large number of counties choose to outsource EMS it’s not always a one size fits all solution.

“Some counties have attempted to contract with private entities in the past. But companies are not in the business of losing money, and everything associated with the service is very expensive,” Hampton said during the Tuesday meeting. “When a private company pulls out of a county, those citizens expect the fiscal court to find a solution to that.”

Kentucky Association of Counties

Hampton said the key to solving chronic staffing issues many countries face is through staffing recruitment and retention. She also said there’s an urgent need to fill various roles in all facets of the service. Hampton shared another statistic stating Kentucky only employs about one-third of the total number of licensed EMTs in the state.

The disparity, though, is lower for licensed paramedics.

Kentucky Association of Counties

Rowan County Judge-Executive Harry Clark said his county’s EMS service has started to lend staff and ambulances to other nearby counties struggling to keep up with demand for transport

“We get a lot of the transport not because the other counties are shrugging off their duties. They don't have the people to do it. They don't have the number of ambulances to do it,” Clark said. “Some of those counties, there's one ambulance up a day.”

Clark suggested opening up new ways for individuals to become certified EMTs or paramedics.

“If we could find a better way to pipeline, or more recruitment tools or some other way to do that… it would help us tremendously,” he said.

The task force will meet again in November to discuss possible recommendations for the next Kentucky legislative session to tackle staffing shortages in rural counties and other changes to the state’s emergency medical services.

Zacharie Lamb is a music major at Murray State University and is a Graves County native.
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