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On the front lines of emergency care

by John G. Miller

Managing editor

Health care seems to be a major issue in the upcoming election as staff writer Nora Edinger pointed out in her front page story in today's paper.

There is much talk about the high cost of health care, the lack of insurance and the ongoing battles between managed care and health practitioners.

But I wonder if you realize just how little money goes to those first on the scene of life-and-death situations.

The paramedic who might save your life today is bringing home a whopping $7.50 per hour in Harrison County. The emergency medical technician helping him is only making $6.25 per hour.

The entry level 911 dispatcher responsible for directing the paramedic to your side doesn't make much more, just around $8 per hour.

And Harrison County emergency service personnel are paid better than most in surrounding counties, according to Fred Smart, Director of Emergency Services.

He said the County Commission has done a good job over the past five to seven years of improving pay for 911 dispatchers.

"But we still have a ways to go," Smart said. "The biggest problem is that it's hard to keep people when they are only making $16,000 a year."

Harrison County Emergency Squad Chief Stephen McIntire has an even tougher job.

The squad is non-profit and is still recovering from near financial disaster just a year ago.

Efforts have been made to improve the wages, which, until recently, were slightly higher, on average, than minimum wage.

But while the pay has improved slightly, paramedics and technicians often have to balance several jobs to make a living. And that's true of most emergency medical service personnel in the area.

"Until I became chief, I was working four jobs," McIntire said. "It's tough to recruit people because of the low pay and lack of benefits."

And recently I spoke with another paramedic who indicated that he worked full-time in one area county and part time in two others for two reasons: To help pay for his schooling and because there was a tremendous need to help provide adequate care.

McIntire said the local squad is fortunate to have many dedicated workers who keep it functioning.

"The people we have are there because they know the importance of helping others and they enjoy it," McIntire said.

Still, you have to wonder just how the low wages affect on-site emergency medical care. How long will those dedicated few keep making personal sacrifices for the good of the many?

There are major problems with health care in West Virginia and the United States. Low wages and the potential for poor emergency medical care, though often overlooked, are among them.

John G. Miller is the managing editor of the Exponent and Telegram. He can be reached at 626-1473 or by e-mail at cpcnews@earthlink.net.

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