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Trauma Care Funds at Risk

JEMS.com Editor's Note: Click here to read Will Chapleau's Trauma Talk column.

ATLANTA -- Georgia's budget crisis has cast doubt on the state's ability to provide millions of dollars to expand the network of hospitals that handle trauma care for car crashes, stabbings and shootings, top state officials said.

"It's going to be tough," said Gov. Sonny Perdue's spokesman, Bert Brantley. "We're in a cutting mode."

Such comments worry advocates who want up to $75 million annually from the state. They are gearing up a $398,000 public awareness campaign to convince state legislators trauma care is a priority.

"When they say things like that, I worry that they are not making trauma a top priority," said Dr. Dennis Ashley, head of the state trauma commission.

Advocates, including elected and hospital officials and EMS representatives, stress that trauma care in Georgia is in its own crisis. The state's death rate for wreck and other victims is 20 percent higher than the national average. Simply meeting that average, they say, could save the lives of 700 Georgians a year.

But even as advocates met in Atlanta on Tuesday --- planning billboards, surveys and support efforts --- they also acknowledged a new obstacle. The struggling economy has state planners projecting a $1.6 billion budget deficit, and Perdue has told state agencies to plan for 6 percent cuts.

Advocates say the economic slowdown is also hitting the state's 15 trauma hospitals, some of which are considering dropping the speciality service. Shoring them up becomes even more important in this climate, said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, associate dean for health policy at the Emory University School of Medicine. Emory provides many of the doctors for Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, the largest and busiest trauma center in the state.

Advocates were particularly concerned by recent comments on trauma care funding made by Lt. Gov. CaseyCagle, who told Macon TV station WMAZ, "I can tell you that it's going to be very difficult this session, looking at a $1.6 billion deficit, to follow through on that commitment."

Kellermann stressed that state leaders "should not shrink from this."

Perdue, Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson each reiterated their support for the funding this week, when questioned by a reporter.

The three leaders had made similar statements at the start of the last legislative session in January, only to see the issue fall apart because of political infighting.

Advocates had hoped the state would provide a permanent funding source.

In the end, the hospitals had to divvy up a one-time funding shot of $59 million, and it remains unknown whether they will get money again.

The 100 advocates who met Tuesday strategized about pushing the issue to the front burner. A $398,000 grant from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation is fueling their public awareness campaign.

Sherry Shuman shared her story, recalling the care her son received after an auto accident in Gwinnett County in 2006. Ben Shuman suffered a severe head injury and was airlifted to Grady hospital, where the quick care was vital to his recovery, she said.

"Now he is driving, living on his own and making his own decisions," she said.

But other areas of the state --- particularly the I-75 corridor south of Macon, dubbed by advocates "the corridor of death" --- need more trauma centers and services, advocates say.

Shuman sent a message to lawmakers, who meet again in January: "Don't let it come down to your family member before you support something this important."

UPDATE

THE STORY SO FAR

* Previously: The Legislature failed to provide a permanent source of money to pay for the network of trauma care hospitals in the state. Instead, 15 hospitals divided a one-time shot of $59 million.

* The latest: Officials say the state budget crisis casts doubt on the state's ability to provide more money for trauma care.

* What's next: Advocates plan a $400,000 public awareness campaign to convince legislators the public believes the issue is a priority.

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