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Bill OKd to tighten rules on medics in California

Ambulance and fire department medics disciplined for patient care problems and other wrongdoing would be tracked across the state and not be allowed to float unhindered from one jurisdiction to another under a last-minute bill that was passed late Tuesday by the California Legislature.

The measure would close two major loopholes in the oversight of the state's estimated 70,000 emergency medical technicians, or EMTs.

It would establish a centralized registry for EMTs, through which hundreds of fire departments and ambulance companies across the state could determine whether an employee had had a previous medical-care or disciplinary problem.

And for the first time, all prospective rescuers would be required to undergo FBI and California law enforcement background checks before being hired by a fire department or private ambulance company.

California is the only state in the nation that has no uniform registry for EMTs or statewide requirements for criminal background checks. Rescuers disciplined or fired in one jurisdiction have been able to get jobs in others, with their new employers unaware of their previous problems.

Emergency medical technicians in California can be certified by any one of dozens of local and regional agencies. By contrast, paramedics, who receive far more training and perform advanced techniques such as injecting drugs and intubating patients, are certified by and ultimately accountable to one agency: the state Emergency Medical Service Authority.

"This is an important step forward," offering tools to weed out "any bad players that may be out there," said Bruce H. Lee, president of the state's association of local emergency medical administrators, which had pushed for stronger oversight.

A Times investigation earlier this year found that oversight of EMTs in California was fragmented and haphazard at best, with nothing to prevent EMTs in trouble in one jurisdiction from starting with a clean slate in another. The newspaper reviewed all regulatory actions taken against EMTs in California from 2000 to 2006.

In one case, a rescuer was suspended by Kern County for allegedly impersonating a paramedic, then managed to work and renew her EMT credential in an adjacent jurisdiction.

State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill's sponsors, said the legislation would help correct such problems by creating uniform standards and a higher level of accountability.

"A person can't be guilty of misdeeds in one jurisdiction and go to the next jurisdiction and get hired," he said.

Not everyone was completely satisfied, however. A provision limiting public disclosure of investigative material gathered by employers against EMTs was opposed by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. The group said the provision was placed in the bill in the final days of the legislative session, offering little time for public input.

In fact, public access to records about EMTs is already limited. Basically, the only records available are one-page reports that local regulators send to the state listing the names of EMTs and the general types of health code violations allegedly committed.

The bill's language was not clear on whether the public could still receive such general records, but local EMT regulators who helped craft the measure said the intent was not to shut the public out of the process.

"I can't imagine what [is released] now will be withheld," said Virginia Hastings, executive director of the Inland Counties Emergency Services Agency, which oversees EMTs in San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono counties. "Nothing was ever intended to change that."

The bill is being sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. His press office said Wednesday that he hasn't decided if he'll sign it.

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