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TRAGEDY CALLS FOR REAL INVESTIGATION

When Mark Surette collapsed at work with a heart attack, you would have expected an especially prompt and effective emergency response. After all, he worked on computers at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, his office only 200 feet from the emergency room. And paramedics were on the way from Sunstar, Pinellas County's emergency medical service, whose tax-financed operations boast of being "a model for the entire country."

Surette died. He never made it the few steps to the VA emergency room. Instead, EMS workers took him to St. Petersburg General Hospital, a 10 minute drive down the road. No one knows, or at least they aren't saying, if that delay contributed to Surette's death.

A couple of things are certain: If the VA hospital turned Surette away because he wasn't a military veteran, it acted immorally and perhaps illegally. And the county's EMS medical director, Dr. Laurie Romig, is far too nonchalant in her obligation to the lives of the citizens she serves.

Emergency responders and a doctor at Bay Pines did treat Surette on the scene. Yet rather than rushing the stricken man to the nearby emergency room, someone in Romig's office phoned the hospital instead. The caller identified Surette as a non-veteran. What did that have to do with anything at that point? Then the caller, whom Romig wouldn't identify, asked: "Would you guys be willing to take that patient or do you want him to go to St. Pete General?"

Where was the sense of urgency? And why was this a multiple-choice question? There was a human life in the balance, an employee of the hospital no less. EMS should have wheeled Surette into the VA emergency room and demanded immediate care.

Yet listening to Romig, you wouldn't know there was anything out of the ordinary in this case. Sure, she's investigating the incident but she's already made up her mind. "I don't think we could say our folks did anything incorrect," Romig told St. Petersburg Times reporter William Levesque.

That must give Pinellas County residents great comfort. And it gets worse. In that interview, Romig brushed off poor communications between her office and the VA hospital as "just another one of those factors that could have been part of a Murphy's Law chain of events."

This wasn't some software glitch; it was a tragic death. On Wednesday, Romig told the Times the problem could have been that EMS responders believed (incorrectly, she says) that non-veterans couldn't be taken to the Bay Pines emergency room. Guess whose responsibility it is to notify EMS employees of that point - Romig's. "We haven't done it recently," Romig admitted. "We have such a high turnover rate."

Where are Pinellas County officials in all this? At a safe distance. The county contracts out its EMS responsibilities to private companies. The ambulance drivers work for Paramedics Plus. Romig and those in her office work for Emergency Medical Services Group Inc. and are responsible for "medical oversight." Obviously there wasn't enough oversight in this case.

So far, Pinellas County officials have taken no responsibility. Asked Wednesday if the county would investigate the two companies' performance in Surette's death, Assistant County Administrator James Dates said county rules "empower the office of the medical director to do the investigation." In other words, Romig will investigate herself.

Sorry, but county officials cannot wash their hands of responsibility so easily. County Administrator Steve Spratt and the County Commission need to find out what really happened and who was at fault by turning the case over to a competent, independent investigator.

Maybe Surette still would have died if he had been taken to the Bay Pines emergency room nearby, but he deserved that chance at life. And Pinellas County residents deserve some answers.

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