A state legislator in Louisiana backed by the state firefighters union has launched a bid to make Louisiana the only state that exempts firefighters from all medical oversight.
Oversight is crucial, doctors say, because firefighters respond to more medical emergencies than fires and routinely care for critically ill people outside hospitals with no doctor present.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Karen St. Germain, a Democrat, today begins working its way through the legislature. The nine members of the emergency medical services (EMS) commission, named by Gov. Bobby Jindal, called the proposal “preposterous” in a letter delivered to the governor Thursday.
Last year, commissioners found that 900 of the 22,000 people who applied to work as emergency medical technicians had physical, mental or criminal histories that might affect patient care. Five percent of those deserving scrutiny were firefighters. Commissioners disciplined 174 applicants for licensure or renewal for infractions ranging from malpractice and negligence to substance abuse and criminal behavior, says Jullette Saussy, a commission member and New Orleans’ EMS medical director.
EMS directors worry that the Louisiana measure may prompt firefighters elsewhere to try to follow suit. “It would open a Pandora’s box,” Saussy says.
A USA TODAY investigation of EMS care in 50 major cities in 2005 found that 6% to 10% of the 9,000 people who collapse from cardiac arrest each year are revived. If each city increased its save rate to 20%, 1,800 more people could be rescued every year.
Experts say exempting firefighters from oversight could mean more lives lost. “To me, it’s unheard of,” says Corey Slovis, medical director of Nashville EMS. “To the best in my knowledge, there is nowhere in the nation where EMS providers function without medical oversight.”
Chad Major of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Louisiana claims responsibility for the measure. “I control the bill,” he says, adding that the union wrote it “sternly” to bring the commission and the state Department of Health and Hospitals to the bargaining table. The union’s goal isn’t to deprive commissioners of medical oversight, he says, it’s to limit their power over certification fees and late penalties.
Saussy rejects the complaint about onerous fees and penalties, because firefighters who qualify to provide medical care reap thousands each year in extra income and hazardous-duty pay.
Jimmy Guidry, who heads the health department, says he has begun meeting with firefighters and others to decide how oversight duties should be handled.