For the second time, state legislators have tried to overhaul emergency medical services in New Jersey. And for the second time Gov. Chris Christie has told them to go back to the drawing board.
The bill (S-1650) would have increased state supervision of EMS, giving officials the authority to license paramedics and emergency medical technicians; require background checks on emergency workers; and establish minimum EMS standards for response times.
But Christie wrote in his veto message that the bill failed to address a series of issues that he raised when he vetoed an earlier version, including its effect on property taxes and EMS volunteers.
“Before disturbing our current system of emergency care and rushing headlong into the major overhaul proposed in the bill, prudence dictates that we fully comprehend the consequences of such changes,” Christie wrote.
The bill’s sponsors met the veto with disappointment. Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) said in a statement that the legislation would have brought New Jersey up to the standards of neighboring states and increased accountability.
“I’m disappointed that the governor has again vetoed common-sense reforms that would modernize the delivery of EMS services in our state,” said Conaway, adding that the bill resulted from a comprehensive study released in 2007. “Since then, New Jersey residents have been waiting for much-needed reform.”
The bill was supported by many professional EMS workers, including union officials, while it was opposed by volunteer organizations. Mary Daley, president of the Professional Emergency Medical Services Association, said the veto was a “disservice” to residents.
Daley said the state would never be able to improve emergency medical services “if the governor is looking for it to be a negative tax impact across the board.”
She added that until the state sets minimum standards that have to be met for providing EMS, some geographic areas would have inadequate services.
“There are no standards for response times looked at in the state of New Jersey,” Daley said. She noted that a shortage of volunteers has led to highly trained paramedics being forced to respond to basic calls like sprained ankles, leaving them unavailable for emergency calls for heart attacks.
If the state set response-time standards and local services were unable to meet them, it would indicate the need for local officials to make changes, such as hiring a commercial EMS service provider, Daley said. By meeting the standards required by the bill, they would also improve staffing levels and allow paramedics to focus on life-threatening situations, she said.
But Howard Meyer, president of the New Jersey State First Aid Council, was pleased that Christie again sided with opponents of the bill. His organization is the state’s largest emergency medical volunteer organization.
“I think the message it sends is that very simply sometimes the little guys get heard,” Meyer said. “When you lay out the facts, when you stick with the same issues and concerns and you’re not changing your position to suit the particular instance or day of the week, then people will listen.”
While Meyer said that volunteers advocate for some increase in standards, they were concerned that the bill gave too much authority to state officials.
“It’s the local municipalities that are the determining factor as to who provides their EMS and not a bureaucracy in Trenton,” said Meyer, adding that local “elected leaders and their residents are in a far better position to recognize what their needs are than anybody else.”
Meyer said the bill would have increased costs at the local level, adding that some paramedic units have closed because they weren’t financially viable. One area where Meyer would like to see a statewide standard is in the number of hours of training that newly certified EMTs must undergo. Meyer said several EMT certification programs vary in the hours and curriculums, making it impossible for volunteers who miss one class to make it up at a different training center.
Bill sponsor Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) said the concerns that Christie raised about the bill were “gratuitous, at best,” adding that the bill was crafted so that it wouldn’t increase property taxes or hurt volunteerism.
Vitale said one advantage of the bill is that it would increase state officials’ ability to coordinate any response to large-scale catastrophes, such as terrorism incidents.
“We’ve spent the past few years working with the paid and volunteer squads trying to fashion a compromise, we had one that 95 percent in agreement by both sides and it passed,” Vitale said, adding: “It’s not responsible to support a system that doesn’t have the very-best-prepared individuals and equipment available in emergencies.”
While Conaway and Vitale expressed hope that they would be able to work out a compromise with Christie, Vitale said the administration must suggest changes to enable that to happen.