EMS levy requires 60 percent to pass
Voters will be asked to pass an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy at the polls on Tuesday, November 4 to help finance EMS service throughout the county amid increasing demand, decreasing medicare reimbursements and limited tax dollars.
On the ballot is a six-year levy that will tax homeowners 38.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, amounting to an average of $57. In order to pass, the levy needs 60 percent of the vote.
For several years, fire districts and Whatcom Medic One (administered by the Bellingham fire department) have both been dispatched to respond to EMS calls throughout Whatcom County, a 2,100 square mile area containing 19 fire agencies. Local fire districts are often the first to respond � because they are the closest � and initiate basic life saving support. Following initial care from these first responders, the arriving Whatcom Medic One unit then transports the victim to the hospital, as most fire districts throughout the county do not.
Currently, there are four medic units throughout the county � two stationed in Bellingham and two in rural areas � and should the levy pass, a fifth medic unit will be phased into the program next year.
So why the need for this levy? According to Bellingham interim fire chief Bill Boyd, increased demand for EMS is affecting the EMS system.
�Due to the increasing population and the graying of America, there is a 10 percent increase in emergency response within the last year,� Boyd said. �There is an increase in the over 60 population within the county and that is adding to the demand.�
The budget for Whatcom Medic One � approved by both the Bellingham city council and Whatcom County Council � topped at $5.4 million for 2003. With a 10 percent increase in demand last year, on top of a projected additional 10 percent increase next year, the system is suffering.
�The levy doesn�t pay for any wages � or anything else like that � it provides for the current level of service� Boyd said. �If the levy doesn�t pass, residents will lose the current rate of service.�
Over 70 percent of emergency calls made in 2002 were EMS related. The incident distribution was recorded at 53 percent within the city of Bellingham and 47 percent countywide.
�Currently, there is a core group of 40 paramedics in the county and an annual number of 6,000 patients,� Boyd said, adding first responders play a key role in EMS service, as there are more of them and they arrive before Whatcom Medic One.
But volunteers are not easy to keep on staff, and often last between two and five years with a fire district. �We are constantly training volunteers all of the time,� said Fern-dale fire chief Gary Russell. �It takes a full year of training for a good basic life support responder. The levy would be there to support volunteer firefighters and districts. It also helps the integration of medics and districts.�
The increasing demand for EMS service � specifically advanced life support (ALS) � is not just a burden financially, it�s also a burden on the volunteers. �We�re burning our folks out,� Boyd said.
As for basic life support (BLS), some districts can perform both care and transport of the patient, without Whatcom Medic One; however, the majority of them can�t. North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) recently began BLS transport, but division 13 fire chief Jim Rutherford stresses two important ideas.
�We started transport on September 1 and so far we have done about 20 transports, but they are all basic, we do not transport advanced,� Rutherford said. �That means, for example, we can transport someone with a broken leg to the hospital. We could not transport someone suffering from a heart attack. Also, we don�t transport every single basic call, we�ve only done about 20, and it�s been two months since we started.�
Discussion of the proposed EMS levy started in January of 2002 and the plan was complete in July of that year. Almost 30 organizations and agencies were involved in the process, meeting once a month in Bellingham.
Should the levy pass, 85 percent of the funds will go directly to Whatcom Medic One. EMS dispatch services will receive nine percent, basic life support will see three percent. Point Roberts, which currently has its own ALS service due to its isolation from the rest of the county, will receive one percent, about $110,000.
So what�s the added value for Blaine and Birch Bay should the levy be passed? �It�s the continuation of current level of service you�re getting now,� Boyd said. �If it doesn�t pass, then no additional resources will be added. The odds go up we won�t be able to respond to ALS situations.�
Rutherford agreed. �If the levy doesn�t pass, it is very possible there will be no advanced life support service here, which means we will be faced with a few options.�
NWFRS, Rutherford said, could provide ALS, but it would mean high costs and maintenance factors for an organization that is already financially suffering. In addition, the interlocal agreement between districts 3, 5 and 13 will expire on December 31, 2004 � ironically, the same time the current funding for Whatcom Medic One is up. Other options, he said, would be for the fire districts to contract with a private provider or contract with the city of Bellingham to provide ALS.
�It will be up to the city and county officials to figure out what�s best, if the levy doesn�t pass,� Boyd said. �It will have a fairly rapid effect on delivery of service. We�re talking about capacity here. The more the demand, we will simply run out of medic units.�
These arguments do not sit well with many community members. One person who disagrees with the need for higher taxes is the former ciy of Bellingham finance director Lynn Carpenter. Now serving the Committee of Public Safety, Carpenter said it is important for people to understand that the levy is not a vote for or against EMS.�
�It is a vote about how we should pay for it.�EMS services has been supported from the general funds of Bellingham and Whatcom County.�Public safety is a government priority and should be funded as a priority,� Carpenter said. �Taxpayers are currently subsidizing the EMS system in the amount of $2.6 million.�If this levy passes, we will be paying an additional $5 million.�Now we are paying taxes of $7.6 million; $5 million will be used to Medic One and the other $2.6 million will be used for government spending�
The EMS must deal with cost containment programs, she said, that are used by EMS systems all over the U.S. For example, Seattle dispatchers are trained to monitor calls in order to understand the appropriate response. They only send an ambulance 35 percent of the time.
�Their Medic One paramedics, treat and stabilize the patient and a private ambulance company transports, thus freeing the ambulance to deal with the next emergency,� she said.��In Whatcom County, an ambulance is sent to almost every call and Medic One transports to the hospital tying up ambulances for hours.�Making some changes in the way they operate would allow for continued good service and would reduce their call load making expansion unnecessary.�If we keep sending them more money, they will continue to spend.��
Carpenter believes the EMS system continues to spend at an unreasonable rate and are budgeting to be operating in the red at the end of this six-year levy.�
�What then?�Stop it now and demand accountability,� she said. �Whatcom Medic One has made the case that they want more money.�They haven�t made the case the need the money.�