Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Jesse Folk is a member of the National Guard from Ortonville on the border between Minnesota and South Dakota. After training as a combat medic, he served in Iraq for one year. When he returned home, he wanted to apply his military training and experience as a civilian paramedic. After checking out civilian training programs, however, Jesse discovered that he would have to start from square one because they would give no credit for his emergency medical training and experience from the military. Jesse decided not to become a paramedic. His story is not an isolated case, and America's rural communities are worse off as a result. We need to do something about it. We cannot afford to squander the wealth of expertise and experience that our veterans offer. Our nation has invested in developing their skills and we need to make the most of that investment, especially when they can help meet the health care needs of rural America. Rural areas have long faced critical personnel shortages in emergency medical services (EMS). A 2002 Minnesota study described it as a "quiet crisis," with 75 percent of rural EMS providers saying they needed to add more staff and 67 percent saying they had difficulty covering their shifts. Likewise, a 2002 survey of ambulance services in South Dakota found that the top two concerns were training and recruit-
ment/retention. In a 2004 national survey of state EMS directors, recruitment/retention and "24/7 coverage" were identified as the most important rural issues.
In some places, there is growing concern about whether an ambulance will even be available when someone calls 911. Rural communities must cope with these shortages at the same time they face special needs. Rural areas tend to have aging populations that require more emergency medical services. Also, compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans suffer a disproportionate share of injury-related deaths. Although rural areas have only 20 percent of the nation's population, they account for nearly 60 percent of all trauma deaths. To meet these needs and relieve the staff shortages, there is an ideal talent pool available with veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who already have significant emergency medical training and experience. Thousands of men and women in the military receive emergency medical training as part of their duties. For example, 80 percent of all Army combat medics are currently certified as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) at the basic level. The problem is these veterans return home and find that their military experience does not count toward civilian paramedic training and certification. Existing programs require all students to begin with an entry-level curriculum, which means veterans must spend extra time and money on basic training they already have. To correct this problem, we have introduced bipartisan legislation that is designed to relieve the rural shortage of emergency medical personnel by accelerating and streamlining civilian paramedic training for returning veterans who have appropriate training and experience. Called the Veterans-to-Paramedics Transition Act, this legislation would provide federal grants for universities, colleges, technical schools and state EMS agencies to develop a suitable curriculum to train these veterans and fast-track their eligibility for paramedic certification. Co-sponsors include Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) as well as Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS). It has already been endorsed by the American Ambulance Association and the National Rural Health Association. When any one of us is sick or injured and needs emergency medical care, we count on an ambulance and paramedics to rush to our aid no matter where we may live. However, many rural communities across America no longer have that assurance. When we have soldiers like Jesse Folk who are trained to save lives on the front lines of combat, they should also have the opportunity save lives on the front lines right here at home. Amy Klobuchar is a U.S. Senator from Minnesota. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin represents South Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives.