Response times for an ambulance vary widely in Iowa, with rural areas faring worse than urban locations. (Photo courtesy of Scott County)
Before this month, some rural Iowans were facing the prospect of calling for an ambulance and having no one show up, emergency services officials said.
That may change now that counties can ask voters to increase property taxes to support their emergency medical services departments.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 615, which now allows counties to designate emergency medical service (EMS) departments as an essential county service, placing it on an equal level with law enforcement and fire departments in the state.
The designation opens more funding opportunities to departments across Iowa’s 99 counties. A county’s board of supervisors can put up a tax for voters’ approval to benefit EMS departments. The vote must receive 60% approval from the community to pass.
Winnebago County paramedic and president of Lake Mills Ambulance Service Beth Aschenbrenner said she’s been advocating for increased funding to EMS departments for years after watching her department lose volunteers and medical professionals.
“We’re short staffed,” she said. “It’s like that across the state. And the community is starting to notice. In Lake Mills, EMS wasn’t getting out into the community as much as they should have, so we’re letting people know that we do need help.”
However, Aschenbrenner said support for her department ebbs and flows over time, so she’s unsure if residents in her county would want to increase their property tax. To find support, she said she wants to educate her community on what an ambulance does and what the tax could do for her county.
“These funds mean training dollars, maybe being able to compensate our people for the long hours they’re putting in, and gives us additional resources to get better equipment,” she said. “It’s going to help our community and the possibilities are limitless if we get our taxpayers to vote for this.”
Benefits to rural communities
Iowa has several “EMS deserts,” leading to longer ambulance response times in rural areas, said Jamie Cashman, government relations manager at the Iowa State Association of Counties. He said more rural counties in the state are looking to utilize this legislation soon.
“We’re getting more questions from rural counties where these desert areas are,” he said. “There are counties that are very interested in using this legislation and now that it’s gone into effect, I assume the interest will only increase moving forward.”
Due to the newness of the legislation, he said some counties are still trying to understand their options and the best way to take action.
Rural counties, however, might have a hard time informing their constituents of the new law, Cashman said. There is a “lack of awareness” of the legislation, he said, that requires added time for county supervisors to explain the tax to their voters prior to it being on a ballot.
“It’s going to be on the supervisors to go out to their communities and sell it,” he said. “Counties need to go out and educate their communities, especially the rural ones, on the delays and pickup times. I’m confident counties’ board of supervisors can make that sell to the people.”
Aschenbrenner said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for more funding to EMS departments, with a drop in volunteers, leading to low staff numbers over the past 16 months. The lack of volunteers and staff increases delays and the chance that an ambulance won’t respond to a call at all, she said.
In Winnebago County, one paramedic left their job because of uncertainty and the short staffing, she said.
“There was more stress because of COVID,” Aschenbrenner said. “There was a fear of the unknown, and it was hard.”
Iowa’s most populated county won’t see much change
Polk County’s EMS department structure is different from most of the state’s, due to the majority being linked to fire departments. This means the legislation might not have as big of an impact on the county’s residents, said Brian Helland, president of Central Iowa EMS Directors and assistant chief at the Clive Fire Department.
“While this gives another avenue for funding that counties didn’t have before, I don’t think it will affect Polk County,” he said. “The need is already being met. We have paid EMS services in almost all of the county, with only a few volunteer services left.”
Regardless of whether the funding will assist Polk, Helland said the legislation aims to fix the existing infrastructure’s problems for the state as a whole. He said the funding mechanism establishes a change in policy to reexamine the assistance EMS departments across Iowa need.
“This bill goes above and beyond because it provides a means for us to fund the service instead of just labeling it an essential service,” Helland said. “This bill presents new benefits especially since we know the existing infrastructure for EMS is not working. We’re running into times where people call for ambulances and nobody’s there to show up. Hopefully this can change that reality.”
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