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Deal struck on EMT reviews

Legislators and key players in California's emergency medical services world hammered out a deal Friday to require rescuers to undergo mandatory criminal background checks.

Assembly Bill 941, expected to go to the Senate on Monday, reflects months of talks and bitter recriminations about how to fix the state's patchwork certification system for emergency medical technicians.

"This represents a big step in the right direction for (emergency medical services) governance and public and patient protection in California," said Bruce Lee, emergency medical director for Santa Clara County and chairman of the task force that drafted the deal with input from employers, administrators and unions.

Lew Stone, a vice president of the California Professional Firefighters union, also praised the deal, saying the tough new rules will increase public confidence in rescuers.

"We identified a problem and I'm thankful we all got past our egos and worked hard to fix it," Stone said.

If the Senate approves the legislation, it must return to the Assembly before going to the governor's desk.

The legislation was prompted by a Bee investigation earlier this year that highlighted flaws in the state's EMT system.

The Bee reported that paramedics stripped of state licenses after being found guilty of sexual misconduct or patient neglect had obtained county-issue EMT cards and returned to jobs in ambulances, hospitals and fire departments. Counties, The Bee found, did not always run background checks, and communication among them was spotty at best.

However, in a little noticed clause, AB 941 would make it harder for the public to learn of the very abuses that led to the measure. The bill seeks to make private the information that EMT employers provide state or county authorities about misconduct and wrongdoing.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, which promotes open government and accountability, criticized the clause.

"Given that this issue wouldn't even have risen to legislators' attention without research by The Bee, it's ironic to see a purported solution include a measure making it much harder to find out about these problems," Francke said. "Secrecy is never part of the solution."

California is the only state that lacks statewide EMT licensure and mandatory background checks, an omission that The Bee found also let EMTs with serious criminal pasts retain their credentials.

AB 941 aims to fix those problems, according to its co-sponsors, Sens. Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, and Roy Ashburn R-Bakersfield.

Ridley-Thomas praised the deal, backed by the California Ambulance Association, ambulance giant American Medical Response, the California Fire Chiefs Association and others. "This bill prevents EMTs who were fired from simply moving to another county where they can keep their past hidden," Ridley-Thomas said through a spokeswoman. "Californians will be much safer."

The new bill would require:

  • Background checks for all 70,000 EMTs in California, including FBI and state Department of Justice criminal records checks before an EMT card is issued or renewed.
  • EMT certifications to be issued to applicants only in the county where they work -- or live, if they are not yet employed -- to prevent EMT certification shopping.
  • A centralized database of all certified EMTs and their disciplinary records to be created by the state Emergency Medical Services Authority, which already licenses and disciplines paramedics. The bill does not provide money for the registry, and terms of discipline would continue to be handled by counties and employers.
  • Statewide certification and discipline standards to be created by the state EMSA.

The lack of uniform standards has been a source of frustration for firefighters, who may face separate punishments from their employer and the certifying county. Ridley-Thomas said AB 941 would guarantee fairer treatment.

The bill, however, is a political setback for EMSA and its director, Dr. Cesar Aristeiguieta, which had hoped to assume control of certifying and disciplining EMTs.

That proposal was attacked by the firefighters' union and ambulance industry representatives, who said EMSA already was struggling to keep abreast of troubled paramedics.

EMSA spokeswoman Shirley Tsagris declined to comment.

About the writer:The Bee's Andrew McIntosh can be reached at (916) 321-1215 or amcintosh@sacbee.com.

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