By Ellen Sims
March 15, 2019
When my family suffered the devastating loss of my mother after our local ambulance provider failed to respond to our calls for help, we couldn’t imagine any greater pain: she was the heart and soul of our family and suddenly she was gone, all because of a simple wasp sting.
But being told by our elected officials that her death didn’t matter – that made our pain even worse.
Her death, like so many other troubling episodes in virtually every corner of the state, could have been avoided, but was made possible by Georgia’s emergency medical services, because it actually allows private ambulance providers to have a say in the contracting and delivery of EMS services across the state.
Worse still, the system allows providers to inoculate themselves from real oversight or public review.
After decades of abuse and weak oversight, the Georgia House of Representatives this month passed House Bill 264, a suite of transparency and ethics reforms for the state’s EMS system, on a huge 148-6 vote. Now, those same common sense reforms might not get a fair hearing in the Senate.
In Georgia, emergency medical service is a complicated snake pit of back room dealers who leverage relationships, money and power at the expense of patients and families like mine.
By law, the state is divvied up into 10 districts whose ambulance service is self-determined by local panels. While the structure was conceived in good faith to allow for maximum local control, it also allows ambulance provider representatives to serve on those panels—and sometimes even to direct tax dollars to their own wallets.
Ostensibly, the Georgia Department of Public Health regulates the industry and these unelected panels, but statutorily the agency lacks any significant oversight powers.
As a result, at least four of the state’s 10 regional public health councils include senior representatives from private ambulance providers, according to a recent audit by the Georgia Ambulance Transparency Project.
In fact, it was one of those four panels that determined which company provided ambulance services in Morgan County, where my mother was stung by a wasp last year. Within minutes, she had suffered a severe reaction, but National EMS, which has a pair of seats on the council, never came. Thirty minutes later an ambulance from a neighboring county arrived, but by then it was too late. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
As heartbreaking as it was for our family, my mother’s story isn’t unique. Consider the case of eight-year-old Ethan Hall, who was recently forced to wait two agonizing hours until an ambulance finally deposited him in the care of a hospital after falling from a park slide in South Fulton.
It’s no coincidence that the poor performer who failed Ethan in his moment of need controls three coveted seats on the council that governs EMS service in the district.
I never imagined I’d one day walk the halls of the Capitol, but after working with other victims and transparency advocates, a powerful slate of lawmakers, including the chairs of House Republican Caucus and the Ethics and Appropriations committees, are finally supporting EMS reforms.
But Senator Kay Kirkpatrick, who chairs the committee to which HB 264 was assigned, is refusing to give the bill a fair hearing, which is a prerequisite for it advancing to the broader chamber and finally the governor’s desk.
What victims are proposing is both simple and profound: ban ambulance vendors from serving on Department of Public Health EMS councils, and further applying a 2-year term limit for all members; require vendors to register with the state ethics commission to help root out pay-to-play; require mandatory service provider reviews to ensure safety; and to require that all ambulance providers meet national safety standards.
Those reforms are just common sense, and they might have saved my mother’s life, because she didn’t die from a simple wasp sting, or even the cardiac arrest it trigger. Let me be clear: my mother died because of Georgia’s EMS system.
Georgia families have suffered long enough with substandard emergency medical assistance. Please, Senator Kirkpatrick, do what’s right and give HB 264 the hearing it deserves.
Ellen Sims became an advocate for reforming Georgia’s emergency medical system after her mother’s death in 2018.