The private ambulance industry in Illinois is sounding the alarm two years into the coronavirus pandemic as medical workers leave for better paying jobs.
Like other industries, private ambulance companies are navigating the Great Resignation that has stifled businesses eager to find employees. Unlike most other businesses, private ambulance companies rely on Medicaid and Medicare for about 80% of their revenue, according to Illinois State Ambulance Association President Chris Vandenberg.
"Both of those programs are government-run programs where they are telling us how much they're going to reimburse us," said Vandenberg. "It’s a particular challenge for us because our obligation is to provide service regardless of ability to pay."
Which is why it's difficult for Vandenberg’s company, ATI Ambulance, to raise wages and remain competitive compared to other companies, including hospitals.
"They’re able to take the EMTs and paramedics that work for us [and] utilize them in the emergency rooms to backfill their staffing problems," said Vandenberg. "They’re also able to pay considerably higher than we are."
Norah Power, a critical care paramedic for ATI, has worked in the field for 29 years. She's working harder these days as she picks up more shifts due to staffing issues.
"Working longer hours, getting later calls, picking up extra shifts when you can but at the end of the day, you still have to have your mental health," said Power. "You look at Amazon, DoorDash; yeah, they’re making $20 per hour. You’re like, oh wow … but I have a love for what I do."
ISAA is asking state lawmakers to use $55 million from the American Rescue Plan to fund the industry. Vandenberg says this will help pay for added costs due to COVID-19.
He adds, ISAA wants the Medicaid rate to be increased, too.
"That Medicaid rate increase really is sort of to help heal us and move us on a path forward that we can continue to recruit, attract and retain EMTs and paramedics in the field," said Vandenberg.
Vandenberg says average wait times for private ambulance service has increased to 12 hours in Chicago due to staffing problems.