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Ore. city leaders push for paramedic/EMT staffing in challenge to county official

Portland, Gresham officials go against Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s claim that AMR is lowering standards if staffing changes


Portland and Gresham leaders gathered in the Centennial neighborhood at Fire Station 31 to implore the Multnomah County chair to change the ambulance staffing model.

Austin De Dios | The Oregonian/TNS

By Austin De Dios

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — Portland and Gresham leaders continue to push back on Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson’s reluctance to change ambulance staffing requirements in response to slow arrivals.

Portland Commissioner Rene Gonzalez , Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall , County Commissioners Julia Brim-Edwards and Sharon Meieran and the Gresham and Portland fire chiefs gathered Wednesday in the Centennial neighborhood at Fire Station 31 to blast the county chair. They chose the station because Portland and Gresham firefighters both operate from it.

Portland and Gresham city councils passed resolutions this week urging the county to ditch its requirement that ambulances have two paramedics aboard in favor of a model that would be easier to staff — one paramedic and one emergency medical technician. Portland’s resolution passed with the support of Gonzalez, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Mingus Mapps .

American Medical Response , the ambulance provider, has said the proposal would help it improve response times.

On Tuesday, Vega Pederson said AMR was trying to lower its standards, and that doing so would worsen medical care. “The truth is,” she said, “AMR is failing our community.”

Vega Pederson also said a shift in staffing would further strain fire departments, which would put more burden on taxpayers, but Portland’s Interim Fire Chief Ryan Gillespie said Wednesday that he disagreed.

“As far as future charges or future harm, I’m not entirely clear on what the chair meant by that,” Gillespie said.

He said the EMT-and-paramedic model would put more ambulances on the road and reduce the stress on firefighters.

Vega Pederson has said she would convene medical experts to propose a staffing solution within 30 days. Meieran and others, though, have said that’s not soon enough. Meieran, an emergency room physician, said that she planned to bring a resolution to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to urge Vega Pederson to approve the staffing change immediately. She is backed by Brim-Edwards.

“I think what the chair needs to hear is that we need action now, not a month from now,” Brim-Edwards said.

Meieran said that the EMT staffing model is only a temporary measure while the county develops a lasting solution to the paramedic shortage.

“The change in ambulance staffing model is the short- term fix,” she said. “That’s the immediate thing that we can do while we are working on the longer-term system issues.”

AMR director for Multnomah County, Robert McDonald , said that the company has tried other solutions to ease the high volume of calls, including an EMT-only ambulance program that responds to lower-level calls and a program called the “low-acuity queue,” which has a paramedic reassess people who have less urgent medical needs.

While helpful, the programs haven’t been enough to solve the issue, McDonald said.

“We knew very early on that this was not going to be the answer,” he said.

McDonald said the company has offered incentives, such as overtime bonuses to paramedics and EMTs who take extra shifts. He estimated those bonuses cost the company over $120,000 per month.

AMR is also in the process of finding fire departments and other ambulance services to subcontract with, including Metro West and the Cascade Locks Fire Department roughly 32 miles northeast of Gresham. McDonald said it would not bridge the gap in ambulance services, however.

In a statement Wednesday, Vega Pederson’s office said “she has not ruled out anything at this point,” but that she wants to make her next decisions thoughtfully in the interest of the public’s medical care.

“Chair Jessica Vega Pederson won’t compromise community safety because of political pressure,” the statement said.

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