Phoebe endorses trauma measure

ALBANY, Ga. -- An Albany hospital has jumped on board in support of a system officials say is dangerously underfunded.

At Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital's board meeting Wednesday, administrators voiced their support for Georgia Constitutional Amendment 2 -- a measure that would establish a $10 car tag fee for the purpose of building a statewide trauma network trust fund.

Georgia voters will approve or reject the amendment Nov. 2 in the general election.

"This amendment is the first opportunity for the state (as a whole) to weigh in," said Dr. Doug Patten, senior vice president of medical affairs at Phoebe.

Deaths from trauma injuries in Georgia are 20 percent higher than the national average because of limited resources in the state. Car wrecks are the leading cause of trauma injury, followed by accidents at home or at work.

There are currently 16 designated trauma centers in the state, and 30 are needed to meet Georgia's needs, officials say. The fees collected under the vehicle tax will generate about $80 million annually to train emergency care personnel, increase rapid transport, provide the latest equipment and technology and upgrade more emergency rooms to trauma centers.

Phoebe itself is not one of the 16 designated centers, but it is a regional trauma care provider that deals with 500-600 major cases a year. "We do have trauma care, but we don't have a network," Patten said.

A "super-speeder" law went into effect in January to raise funds for a trauma network, but it hasn't raised as much money as initially anticipated, information from the Yes 2 Save Lives campaign indicates.

Unlike an emergency room, which deals with a broad range of issues, a designated trauma center is a specialized hospital with staff and equipment dedicated to providing immediate care to seriously injured patients.

"No one likes to think about the need for trauma care," Dr. Dennis Ashley, Yes 2 Save Lives spokesman and trauma services chief at the Medical Center of Central Georgia, said in a statement. "But we can't help people who don't get to us in time. There is a critical window of 60 minutes after a serious injury to get life-saving care. For children, the window is only 30 minutes."

The trauma center nearest to Albany is at Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville, about 65 miles south and outside the "golden hour" range that medical professionals is critical for starting trauma care on an injured patient.

Trauma centers must also meet stringent guidelines and are ranked at Levels 1-4, with Level 1 providing the most comprehensive care. If Phoebe were to be upgraded to trauma center status, it would be a Level 2.

"To be a Level 1, we would have to see more traffic," Patten said.

Most Level 1 facilities see roughly 1,000 trauma cases a year.

The fee on the table in November would impact vehicles carrying 10 passengers or less including pickup trucks, motorcycles, sport utility vehicles and passenger vans.

Should the amendment pass, the money put into the trust fund could not be used for anything else.

"It will never be spent on education or on hospitals other than for trauma care," Patten said. "Hopefully people will understand what a relatively low cost this is."

How the funds will be spent will be decided by a committee of medical professionals.

Even though this measure would increase fees for people, officials emphasize that the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

"For very little money a year we can save lives," Patten said. "If we miss this opportunity, it can be a whole other year before we figure out (another system).

"We are not going to live in a tax-free society, and we won't live in a fee-free society. We don't need to sacrifice lives in Georgia; this is a very simple, very broad-based mechanism."