LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Some relief for struggling volunteer services is making its way through the legislative process.
The state Senate passed a health care bill Thursday night which included an amendment from Sen. Adam Hinds that alleviates the staffing requirements of an ambulance in rural towns. Currently, two emergency medical technicians are required to be on every basic life support transport.
Hinds amendment will alleviate that requirement in rural towns to allow for a first responder to drive the ambulance instead of an EMT. Now the health care bill moves to the House of Representatives for approval and Hinds is confident that the amendment will pass there too.
"Many of the small towns in Western Mass have volunteer ambulance services. As a result, meeting these requirements means waiting longer," Hinds said on Friday.
Lanesborough's ambulance service has been struggling in recent years. Part of the reason is a drop off in answering calls. Most of the volunteers work during the day and when a call comes in, often there aren't two EMTs available.
There are only six or seven active EMTs on the volunteer service to answer the call but there are some 30 volunteer firefighters who are trained first responders. There are times when a single EMT is available to work the back of the rig and care for the patient but the law required another EMT to be the driver.
Hinds amendment allows for those first responders to drive the rig on those occasions.
"This is a great example of how there are a lot of laws in Massachusetts that don't apply to small towns," Hinds said.
In a town like Lanesborough, if two EMTs aren't available an out of town ambulance has to respond. That lengthens the wait time for a patient and the local ambulance service loses out on business.
Hinds' amendment being passed as part of the health care bill is the first step in what has been a six-year process. Back in 2011, former state Sen. Benjamin Downing filed a bill requesting to alleviate the requirement.
The Department of Public Health had concerns with it. State Rep. Paul Mark worked on catering the bill to specifically rural areas, putting in limits on the use of first responders to only towns with a population of 3,000 people or less or with a density of fewer than 500 residents per square mile. Yet, that still didn't pass.
Hinds and Mark both re-filed the bill at the state of this legislative session but it hadn't gotten much traction. As the health care bill came up, Hinds used the opportunity to amend that bill to make the change.
"Until now the focus has been on bills, trying to get bills through the Senate and the House and it faced difficulties," Hinds said.
The senator said he also reached out the Department of Public Health to find a way to alleviate its concerns. Ultimately, the amendment added language that gives the medical director at the local hospital an approval authority of first responders on the ambulance ahead of time. That is already being done with the EMTs and will now extend to the first responders.
The amendment does include a restriction to towns with less than 500 residents per square mile.
"This is aimed at towns using a volunteer service," Hinds said.
Lanesborough fits that density and town officials have been keeping a close eye on the ambulance service's response rate. Last month, the Selectmen said the service was going in the right direction with responses. This bill could be a game changer for keeping that local service alive.
And Lanesborough isn't the only town struggling to keep the volunteer ambulance running. Charlemont and Hawley had both been seeking ways to avoid shutting down the services. Village Ambulance in Williamstown was facing a financial burden and is now merging with North Adams Ambulance Service.
The health care bill now moves to the House of Representatives. Hinds said he expects the House to take it up in the new year and if the amendment stays all the way through to the passage of the health care bill, the ambulance services could start using first responders by the end of 2018.
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