DES MOINES — Representatives of emergency medical services providers urged state legislators Wednesday to make EMS an essential service that local governments would be required to provide like police and fire protection.
Jerry Ewers, Muscatine fire chief who is president of the Iowa EMS Association, included the suggestion to classify EMS as an essential life-saving public function among proposals made to a legislative interim panel looking at ways to improve recruitment, access, training, response time and other concerns related to voluntary and professional EMS providers.
Lawmakers on the Emergency Medical Services Study Committee said the proposal warranted discussion but carried property tax and local income surcharge ramifications for cities and counties that would be required to provide the service or contract with an outsider provider.
“I think that’s something we have to consider very carefully going forward: What does essential service mean and what are the means of funding it?” said Rep. Ralph Watts, R-Adel, a committee co-chairman. “If an essential service means that the local people have to raise their taxes to provide it, I think that’s an issue that we want to hear from those local governments more about before we do anything like that.”
Watts said he was not inclined to look at investing state money into funding emergency medical services, but he expected that likely would get thrown into the mix.
“That’s one of the hazards of maintaining too robust of an ending balance,” he said. “Everybody wants a piece of it. I’m sure there will be some efforts to try to do something like that.”
Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, a Marshall County deputy sheriff, said he expected that cities and counties would balk at making EMS an essential service unless there was funding to compensate them for the new mandate.
“We’re going to have to figure that funding stream out if that’s where we end up going,” said Sodders, an interim committee member. “I think there’s a way to do it. We do give some money to cities and counties to fund those other services.”
Ewers said making EMS an essential service has overwhelming support among his association’s 12,000 providers. He said 64 percent of EMS providers in Iowa are volunteers and two-thirds of those responding to emergencies aren’t compensated.
Given the high percentage of volunteer EMS providers, Ewers said, there is a sizable part of the state that lacks ambulance coverage during daytime hours when services lack adequate nearby staffing, especially in rural areas.
To improve a system that faces an aging network of providers, Ewers' association supports a volunteer public safety property tax credit and increasing the volunteer income tax credit from $50 to $500. Other ideas include a sales tax exemption for emergency equipment purchased by volunteers and other providers, a gas tax exemption for private EMS providers and amnesty for EMS technicians whose certifications have lapsed.
During a separate presentation Wednesday, Rebecca Curtiss, interim chief of the Iowa Department of Public Health’s EMS bureau, said funding from state, federal and other sources declined 28 percent during the past five fiscal years.