Kan. county officials split on using EMS budget for raises or paid training

After the ousting of the formal medical director, Sedgwick County officials are torn between using the money earmarked for EMS to increase pay or offer paid training for 12 new providers


Chance Swaim
The Wichita Eagle

SEDGWICK COUNTY, Kan. — The Sedgwick County Commission is split over how to spend $185,502 that was originally earmarked for Emergency Medical Services under former Director Dr. John Gallagher, who resigned last month after a Wichita Eagle investigation into his leadership.

Under Gallagher, paramedics were leaving the department faster than they could be replaced. Now, the county is trying to figure out how to rebuild the department.

The Sedgwick County Commission is split over how to spend $185,502 that was originally earmarked for Emergency Medical Services under former Director Dr. John Gallagher, who resigned last month after a Wichita Eagle investigation into his leadership.
The Sedgwick County Commission is split over how to spend $185,502 that was originally earmarked for Emergency Medical Services under former Director Dr. John Gallagher, who resigned last month after a Wichita Eagle investigation into his leadership. (Photo/Getty Images)

Commissioner David Dennis supports using the $185,502 as it was proposed by Gallagher — to cover education costs of incoming EMS workers — and rebuffed a proposal by Commissioner Jim Howell to use the money to bolster EMS employee salaries.

Howell said he would rather see that money go directly to EMS employees, in hopes of retaining the workers the county already has instead of slowly growing the department.

Since Gallagher's promotion two years ago, 92 employees have left the roughly 200-person EMS department, causing ambulance shutdowns and dangerously slow response times. In the first half of this year, Sedgwick County EMS reached fewer than one in three patients within 9 minutes — a national standard for EMS response.

EMS employees blamed Gallagher for the mass exodus. Gallagher said staff shortages were a result of a national paramedic supply shortage. This spring, he proposed setting aside $185,502 to pay for schooling for six EMTs and six paramedics. In exchange, the EMS workers would commit to working for the county for a certain time period.

"The reason this program came up primarily is because we were trying to put Band-Aids on the other problems," Howell said.

The county is now working to attract and retain enough employees to get the department — which was once considered one of the best emergency medical services in the country — back on track.

Howell said the program could pose problems with fairness — because existing employees had to pay their own way through school.

"I anticipate with the change that we made in the last month in our organization, we're going to see a restoration of our pride and honor to be a Sedgwick County EMS paramedic or EMT," Howell said. "I don't foresee we're going to have a staff shortage after a couple of years of getting our system back on its feet."

Gallagher and his deputy medical director, Dr. Carolina Pereira, resigned last month amid an Eagle investigation and an external audit ordered by the Sedgwick County Counselor.

County Manager Tom Stolz announced sweeping changes to Sedgwick County EMS, essentially undoing a consolidation of the office of the medical director and EMS operations in 2019. Stolz named Kevin Lanterman, a longtime paramedic, as interim director of EMS.

Stolz said he also plans to create an EMS Citizens Review and Advisory Board with members from various health professions — doctors, nurses, paramedics and EMTs — along with other community members.

Dennis said he only supports using that money for EMS if it's used for its original purpose: implementing a "grow your own" program that improves the paramedic and EMT supply line.

"I don't agree with canceling the program," Dennis said. "If we decide we're going to do that, I would not put the money back into just EMS. We can put it back into the entire organization."

Dennis has been the main proponent for paying for schooling.

"I was hoping that we were going to help our folks grow, and that was why I supported that," Dennis said.

Commissioner Lacey Cruse said she wants to hear directly from EMS workers about whether the education program is right way to spend that money.

Stolz suggested an EMS employee town hall could be held before Aug. 25, when the commission is scheduled to vote on the budget.

"I think it's important for us to hear from our EMS professionals," Cruse said. "They've gone through this. They know exactly what it means and what it will mean."

Howell said he's not fully committed to cutting the education program before it starts.

"I think whatever the EMS folks want is what I would like to support," he said. "That money is earmarked and promised to them in this budget, and if it ends up in their salary, why is that not a good thing?"

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(c)2021 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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