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Answering The Call: After hospital's closing, rescue squad looks to hire staff

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STUART–How do you provide medical care for a community without a hospital? That’s the challenge facing medical units in Patrick County. Earlier this month, Pioneer Community Hospital closed its doors to new patients. Now one fire department is looking at some new options, to help handle the calls.

Sept. 15 was the final day when new patients would be accepted at Pioneer, either in the emergency room or otherwise. That doesn’t stop the calls from coming in to local departments, however. The JEB Stuart Rescue Squad currently handles an estimated 54 percent of Patrick County’s emergency calls, but it’s become harder not just due to the volume, but also because of a shrinking number of volunteers. In years past, there have been as many as 40 volunteers on the rescue squad. Now, there are 15 active members.

JEB Stuart Rescue Squad Captain Derek Wagner said the decline’s not due to people not wanting to offer their services to help others. Rather, it’s an effect of business.

“I think it’s the everyday demands of life,” Wagner said. “If you have kids, they’re involved in band or football and you take them to these places. Parents who would like to volunteer are trying to do things with their kids and work a full-time job. They just don’t have time.”

Family time and work schedules aren’t the only factors that have caused the dip. Individuals in college must often choose between studying and volunteering – there’s not always time for both.

Balancing life with volunteer efforts can be a tricky undertaking. In order to attract more volunteers, the squad implemented a stipend program in June.

“It’s for our volunteers only,” Wagner said. “They get paid per call.”

While the squad responds to between 80 and 100 calls every month, volunteers can benefit from the stipend for up to 16 calls every two weeks or 32 calls a month.

The stipend rates depend on an individual’s position on the squad. Drivers receive $15 and basic EMT workers receive $20 per call. Intermediate volunteers and paramedics receive $25 per call.

With the recent closing of the hospital, there’s an even greater need for those interested in saving lives.

Transport times have significantly increased, as rescue squads have to drive residents outside of Patrick County to receive treatment. Depending on what part of the county they live in, that trip could be to SoVah Health Martinsville or Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital. The trip to Martinsville, at best, is 35 minutes. The trip to Rocky Mount can be as long as 45 to 50. It’s not just a problem for the patient being taken for treatment, but it also increases the rescue squad’s response time to other incidents.

“This affects the number of calls a crew is able to cover, due to turnaround times being two to three hours before a truck can return to service,” Wagner said. He based that estimate on the calls his squad has seen since the hospital closed to new patients Sept. 15. “JEB Stuart’s highest priority is patient care and making sure the citizens of Patrick County have peace of mind knowing if they have a medical emergency that a medical professional will be there.”

Adding part-time help

In order to address the problem, squad officials determined they needed more help. As it’s been hard to find volunteers, they’re now looking for a minimum of six part-time paid employees. Those positions are to help cover calls from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Wagner said the squad is looking for people with a variety of skills.

“These professionals will be Advance Life Support (ALS) trained,” Wagner said. “A typical crew will consist of one EMT-Basic and one ALS provider due to state regulation. These crews will be standing by the station and ready to respond at any given time for JEB Stuart’s call or any other mutual aid call. Also, these crews will be an asset to the squad and its volunteers by helping them with keeping the units cleaned, stocked and will provide training to other volunteers.”

The Board of Directors of JEB Stuart voted unanimously this month to implement the part-time employee strategy.

“The financing of our paid staff will come from the soft billing of the calls that would have been missed from our squad and some slight changes in billing that we have just become aware of,” said President Joanne Spangler. “We are hoping that these changes will ease the burden of other squads and emergency management staff of having to cover our missed calls.”

Both the money provided to volunteers through the stipend program and the funds used to pay the part-time employees will be allocated through the soft billing method. A term used for billing through a third party, soft billing is a result of an individual’s insurance not covering the full cost of a bill.

“If an insurance company pays everything but $200, that’s what we bill,” Wagner said.

As for the billing changes Spangler spoke of, Wagner said they won’t affect people who live in Patrick County.

“Basically, sometimes some insurance companies will pay patients directly and we don’t get that money,” Wagner said. “We’ll be going into a more hard billing situation, but Patrick County residents will remain soft billed. If you’re passing through Patrick County (and need medical transport) and you’re from Indiana, you will be hard billed.”

The JEB Stuart Rescue Squad is accepting applications for part-time EMT-Basic through EMT-Paramedic workers through October 11.

“It’s a part-time job where you get a little extra money and help people,” Wagner said.

While the squad hopes to fill the paid positions, volunteers are also welcome and needed on the crew.

“Volunteers help us keep our overhead costs down. If we had to have a paid 24-hour staff, we would not be able to survive. We would definitely have to hard bill everyone and be out for all the money we could get,” Wagner said. “Volunteers help the patients in medical emergencies.”

For more information about volunteering with or working for the JEB Stuart Rescue Squad, contact Wagner at (276) 692-6640

Amie Pickeral reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at amie.pickeral@martinsvillebulletin.com

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