SPRINGFIELD — Financially ailing rural ambulance services could get a much-needed injection of money under a plan being floated by a state task force.
In a recently released report, the Illinois House Emergency Medical Services Task Force recommended that $40 million from a proposed expansion of gambling be funneled to help pay for various EMS needs, ranging from grants for the purchase of equipment to an increase in funding for training.
The call for money comes as Illinois has seen a decrease in the number of emergency medical service providers because of delays in state funding, lower-than-needed reimbursement rates and changing demographics in rural Illinois.
Peggy Jones, a Bloomington-based consultant with the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network, said nearly 70,000 men and women are serving as emergency medical technicians and paramedics, but that number appears to be on the decline.
She said demographic changes mean there are fewer day-time volunteers in rural areas because younger people are commuting to larger cities for work.
“These lifestyle changes need to be addressed. They are important to the future of EMS,” said Jones, who was a member of the task force that held 17 hearings across the state in 2011.
To help counter the decrease and recruit younger Illinoisans, the General Assembly last year approved legislation allowing 16-year-olds to drive ambulances as “Provisional First Responders.”
If the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn are able to agree on a massive expansion of gambling potentially worth $1 billion in revenue to the state, the competition for those dollars is likely to be fierce.
Quinn has said he wants gambling money from additional casinos and slots at race tracks to go toward schools. Legislators approved a gambling proposal last spring that would divert some of the money to help pay down Illinois’ huge stack of unpaid bills.
Along with identifying a funding stream, the emergency services coalition also wants the state to designate EMS providers as “essential,” putting them on par with fire and police services when it comes to funding.
Greg Scott, director of McLean County Area EMS System and a member of a newly formed emergency medical services alliance, said medical transporters could be arranged at a county level, with money made available for public sector and privately run ambulance services.
“Across the state we are seeing instances of EMS providers closing their doors or not having enough resources to sustain their operation for much longer,” Scott said. “This then has a catastrophic domino effect on neighboring EMS providers causing additional operational strains on the emergency health-care system.”
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The task force also found that some of the financial problems facing ambulance services can be blamed partially on the state reimbursement rate for transport, which hasn’t been increased in 12 years.
Among those testifying at the hearings was Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, who recommended the state increase the availability of online training for EMTs and paramedics.
Of the 120 hours needed for continuing education every four years, Simon said only about 25 percent of that can be completed online.
The task force also recommended extending the life of an ambulance license to four years, rather than annually.
“As these providers close their doors, there are fewer ambulances covering larger areas and more people, which means longer 911 wait times and worse outcomes for Illinoisans in need of emergency medical care,” said Alex Meixner, government relations director for the American Heart Association.