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Emergency responders recall tragedies, urge caution

Nels Gunderson, owner of I-94 Towing and Recovery in Osseo, said he has seen it all in his 44 years operating a towing service and serving on the Osseo Fire Department for 42 years, including the deaths of emergency responders trying to lend aid at accident scenes.

It was because of the frightening and tragic stories Gunderson and other emergency responders can tell that they gathered at the Chippewa Valley Technical College Emergency Service Education Center on Nov. 13 in recognition of Traffic Incident Response Week to send the public a message: Move over. It’s the law and their lives depend on the public obeying.

Gunderson was there when Trooper William Schoenberger was killed while blocking traffic during a car fire response in 1993. Gunderson’s service was there when Trooper Deb McMenamin was killed in 1980. And Gunderson has seen many secondary accidents involving civilians during accident responses.

Chippewa County emergency responders are still haunted by the death of Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Zunker, who was struck by a vehicle on Hwy. 53 near Bloomer in 2008.

“If there’s one message we can declare with volume and tenacity, it’s move over and slow down,” said Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Dave Ross.

Wisconsin’s Move Over law requires drivers to shift lanes or slow down in order to provide a “safety zone” for a squad car, ambulance, fire truck, tow truck, utility vehicle or highway maintenance vehicle that is stopped on the side of a road with its warning lights flashing, according to the DOT website.

“I take the law very seriously,” said State Trooper Al Christian, who patrols out of the Eau Claire headquarters. “It affects me and my fellow emergency responders. Move over, and if you are unable to move over, slow down and use good judgment.”

The message is particularly important on Wisconsin’s high-speed and high-volume highways, like I-94 and Hwy. 53 and Hwy. 29.

“When you are out there, it’s like they’re shooting bullets at you, going by at 70 mph,” Gunderson said.

Gathered at the event were the students in the CVTC Law Enforcement Academy, who are on a career path that will put them in such danger as well.

“We need to teach the next generation of emergency responders that they are targets out on the highway,” said Eric Anderson, the academy director. “More officers are killed in the line of duty in traffic incidents than from any perpetrators out there.”

Law enforcement and emergency responders are trained in CVTC program to keep themselves safe by using best practices, including lights on the scene and high visibility clothing. However, it is the public that needs to be more safety conscious.

“We take precautions for our own safety, but we need help from the public,” Christian said. “Many members of the public don’t obey the law. I have had close calls myself.”

A major point of emphasis is not driving impaired or distracted.

“I was out there when distracted driving wasn’t an issue,” Gunderson said. “There were no cell phones. When you’re behind the wheel, just drive. It’s that simple.”

“The broader message for drivers is end the drunk and drugged driving and the speeding and distracted driving and we’ll have safer roads,” Ross said.

The top 10 most crash-prone intersections in Chippewa County
The top 10 most crash-prone intersections in Chippewa County
“When you are out there, it’s like they’re shooting bullets at you, going by at 70 mph.” Nels Gunderson, owner of I-94 Towing and Recovery

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Chippewa Falls Middle School students get hands-on education at HSHS St. Joseph's Hospital

Ciana Huebner and Lyvia Luebbs raised their hands high at the opportunity to play with germs.

Sue Galoff, infection prevention manager at HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital, couldn’t wait for them and the other students to see how easily and quickly germs can spread.

Nearly 40 seventh-grade Chippewa Falls Middle School students were able to get hands-on education from surgery, emergency department and infection prevention colleagues at HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital, recently, as they took part in the School2Skills program — a collaboration between Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, area schools and local businesses.

The program gives students an opportunity to get career information from colleagues in the field.

Laura Bushendorf, career and technical education coordinator for the Chippewa Falls school district, said students get to connect the whole cycle of health care during this one-day program.

Students also visited Chippewa Valley Technical College to better understand the courses they would need to complete to land the career of their liking. Dove Healthcare-Wissota Health and Regional Vent Center in Chippewa Falls also hosted the group.

If any of the students are interested in infection prevention or quality assurance, Galoff was delivering great information.

To prove her point, Galoff used a bag of powder and a black light. Students Huebner and Luebbs both touched the “germs” and each other. Then the black light came out. The “germs” were everywhere.

Galoff showed the girls how to wash their hands properly. They took to the bathroom sink, scrubbed for the time it takes to sing the ABCs song, and came back to reveal very few germs remained.

Infection prevention is just one career housed at HSHS St. Joseph’s. While at the hospital, students heard about real-life events from the hospital’s operating room and learned about viruses, bacteria and how they spread. Students also got acquainted with infant simulator Baby Hal by nurse, Erin Hunt.

“We don’t want students to lock themselves into anything, but this is a good way for them to explore different areas,” Bushendorf said.

Medicare expands access to in-home support

WASHINGTON — Medicare is experimenting with a new direction in health care. Starting next year, seniors in many states will be able to get additional services such as help with chores and respite for caregivers through private Medicare Advantage insurance plans.

There’s a growing recognition that such practical help can have a meaningful impact on patients’ well-being — and reduce some costs for taxpayers. A couple of hundred dollars to install grab bars in the shower can prevent a fall leading to a broken hip, a life-changing injury.

That may also help elderly people stay in their homes longer.

The newly covered services are similar to what people might need if they required long-term care, said Howard Gleckman, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan Urban Institute think tank.

“It begins to break down the wall between long-term care and Medicare, which, with very few exceptions, has never paid for long-term care,” Gleckman said.

Change is starting slowly. Policymakers have yet to figure out how to bring similar benefits to traditional Medicare, still the choice of two out of three seniors.

The new services will be offered by some Medicare Advantage plans in more than 20 states next year, and that’s expected to grow over time.

There has to be a health-related reason to qualify, and costs will vary among plans. In some plans, there’s no added cost. But limits do apply. For example, a plan may cover one day per week at an adult day care center.

Nearly 23 million Medicare beneficiaries, or more than one in three, are expected to be covered by a Medicare Advantage plan next year. The private plans generally offer lower out-of-pocket costs in exchange for limits on choice of doctors and hospitals and other restrictions such as prior authorization for services. It’s a growing business for insurers.

Medicare Advantage open enrollment for 2019 ends Dec. 7. But it’s not easy to use Medicare’s online plan finder to search for plans with expanded benefits, so beneficiaries and their families will have to rely on promotional materials that insurers mail during open enrollment.

For years, Medicare has permitted private plans to offer supplemental benefits not covered by the traditional program. Think free gym memberships, transportation to medical appointments or home-delivered meals following a hospitalization.

The new benefits take that to a higher level, with Medicare’s blessing.

“It is a big concept, in the sense that it is officially encouraging plans to get across the line into the many, many things that affect the health and well-being of beneficiaries,” said Marc Russo, president of insurer Anthem’s Medicare business. “I, for one, who have been in and around Medicare for decades, believe it pays.”

Insurers under Anthem’s corporate umbrella are offering different packages in 12 of 21 states where they operate Medicare plans. They can include alternative medicine, like acupuncture, or adult day care center visits or a personal helper at home.

Other major insurers like UnitedHealthcare and Humana are participating. It’s a calculated gamble for insurers, who still have to make a profit.

And the limited new benefits are no substitute for full long-term care coverage, which many people need for at least part of their lives and remains prohibitively expensive. Seniors trying to get long-term care through Medicaid, the program for low-income people, must spend down their life savings.

“Medicare policy has not kept up with the times,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the authors of bipartisan legislation seen as a catalyst for expanded services through Medicare Advantage.

Wyden said he’s working to bring similar options to traditional Medicare.

“Clearly this is going to have to be an effort that is going to have to be built out,” he added.

The changes represent a rare consensus at a time when health care issues are among the most politically divisive. Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as Seema Verma, the Trump administration’s Medicare chief, are pulling in the same direction.

The idea of broader services through Medicare Advantage was embodied in a bipartisan Senate Finance Committee bill to improve care for chronically ill seniors. The Trump administration issued regulations in the spring trying to accelerate the changes.

According to Medicare, 12 insurers will be offering expanded supplemental benefits next year through 160 plans in 20 states. In four other states and Puerto Rico, such benefits may be available to seniors with certain health conditions.

“The guidance came out fairly late in the annual planning process, and that’s one reason why some of these benefits may start out small,” said Steve Warner, head of Medicare Advantage program development for UnitedHealthcare.