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Auto Registration Helps Georgia Trauma Center Improvements

Plenty of Atlanta drivers speed through the South Georgia segment of I-75 on the way to Florida's beaches.

But they might slow down if they knew what some health care workers call that portion of the interstate: "the corridor of death." The stretch of road earned the name because people who get in car crashes in much of South Georgia are at least 50 miles from a trauma center --- a hospital equipped to handle serious injuries.

Georgia voters will decide on Nov. 2 whether they want to add $10 to the cost of annual vehicle registrations to improve trauma services statewide. Hospitals, emergency services workers and public health officials say the $80 million that would be raised every year by passage of Amendment 2 is needed to save lives.

Georgia has 17 hospitals designated as trauma centers, short of the 25 to 30 centers that public health officials say the state needs.

Trauma-related injuries --- usually the result of car crashes, falls and work accidents --- are the leading cause of death among Georgians between the ages of 1 and 44, said William T. Moore, a member of the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission and president of Atlanta Medical Center.

"Georgia's trauma death rate is 20 percent higher than the national average --- or about 700 deaths greater than what you would expect at the national average," Moore said.

Atlanta Medical Center is one of the state's 17 trauma centers.

Everyone wants a fast response when they dial 911 for help, but selling the new $10 fee may be difficult. Some metro Atlanta voters believe they are close to well-staffed trauma centers and don't want to pay more to staff up services in rural Georgia.

The Libertarian Party of Georgia opposes the amendment, saying it would be just the latest tax on Georgians already struggling in a tough economy. The party also said the plan for spending the $80 million is too vague.

"There are a lot of details that we're curious about that we don't have the answer to, but we're expected to amend the state constitution for a $10 fee in perpetuity without knowing the details of what is planned with the money," said Brett Bittner, operations director for the Libertarian Party of Georgia.

Between 2004 and 2006, a committee closely studied trauma care in Georgia and concluded the state was significantly underserved, according to Lisa Marie Shekell, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Community Health. That committee estimated the need for up to 30 trauma centers statewide.

The number of Georgia trauma centers rose to 17 last week, when Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville became a Level IV trauma center.

The state's trauma centers are rated as Level I through IV, depending on their capabilities. The state's four Level I centers are the most advanced and must operate 24 hours a day with a full-service surgical suite, an intensive care unit and diagnostic imaging services. Level I facilities must also run a residency program and conduct research. Atlanta's only Level I trauma center is Grady Memorial Hospital.

Level IV facilities provide initial assessment of trauma patients, but transfer most of the patients to hospitals with more capabilities.

In 2007, the General Assembly created the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission to help improve Georgia's trauma services, and the state authorized $58.9 million in 2008 for the commission to distribute to trauma care providers.

The new fee would offer a long-term stream of money that the commission could dole out to create a more organized approach to trauma care, increase the number of trauma centers and help hospitals cover the cost of providing the care, since many trauma patients do not have insurance.

The commission also would help pay for more ambulances, equipment and training for first responders. The commission is made up of doctors, hospital officials and others who work in the trauma field.

Moore said Atlanta Medical Center treats about 2,200 trauma patients a year. Last year, about 300 of its trauma patients were uninsured. The cost of providing care to those patients was about $4.3 million, he said.

Moore said he understands that many voters will be hesitant to approve a new tax. "I'm fiscally conservative," he said, "but I'm going to support it because I'm familiar with the situation in Georgia and I believe this $10 is going to help save lives."

The amendment provides that the money can only be used for trauma care, he said.

About one in seven fatal car crashes in Georgia took place at least 50 miles away from the closest trauma center in 2008, according to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

Many South Georgians, as well as people traveling through that area of the state, are outside the 50-mile radius.

"If you're in a major accident on I-75 and you need immediate care, that's a problem," said Kevin Bloye, a spokesman for the Georgia Hospital Association. "You're in trouble."

"Our data is very clear --- when you're in excess of 25 miles from a trauma center your chances of surviving that crash go down," said Bob Dallas, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

Dallas said an improved trauma network would save lives, improve the outcome of those who are injured, and make Georgia a more attractive place for retirees and companies.

"It's less than 3 cents a day," Dallas said. "That's a great investment."


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