Newplan for county emergency services proposed

Published on Thu, Jul 21, 2005 by eg Olson

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New plan for county emergency services proposed

By Meg Olson

A new plan to provide emergency medical services (EMS) in Whatcom County was unveiled last week which, if embraced by elected officials and voters, will keep the current system from splintering at the end of next year.

The new proposal from the Whatcom County Emergency Medical Services Working Group, organized in fall 2004 at the request of county executive Pete Kremen, keeps the current Medic One paramedic system rolling into 2012, with local fire districts lightening the patient load and the budget by taking over the transport of less serious medical emergencies.

“We’ve pared it down as much as reasonably possible,” Kremen said.
In November 2003 voters rejected a a countywide 38.5 cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation EMS property tax levy. It was intended to pay for the shortfall in the Medic One program, which the Bellingham fire department said it couldn’t afford to keep going without further public support after the end of 2006. Kremen formed the working group, made up of representatives from the county, fire districts and small cities to explore ways to build a separate paramedic service for the county, leaving Medic One in Bellingham.

When a similar levy failed in Bellingham the following fall, city representatives joined the effort to come up with a package that would serve the whole county, and gain needed voter support.

“After we spent several months trying to develop a separate system it became accepted that a unified system was the most cost effective way to provide EMS service,” Kremen said. “The service needs to be funded.” According to the working group’s July 11 report, user fees are covering a smaller and smaller slice of the cost of providing emergency medical services, with Medicare paying 74 cents for every dollar billed to them. Public funds are needed to support the system.

Under the new plan a tiered level of emergency response would limit Medic One paramedic response to life-threatening emergencies while basic life support (BLS) transport would fall to the first responders from local fire districts. The change will substantially reduce expenses for the paramedic system, pushing the projected date a new Medic One unit would be needed out to 2010. However, even with Bellingham and Whatcom County continuing annual contributions from their general funds, now $1.3 million each, Medic One would still have an anticipated combined operating shortfall of $11 million from 2007 through 2012.

That’s where the voters come in. The recommended solution is a one-tenth-of-one-percent additional sales tax that would generate ongoing funding for Medic One, which would spread the tax burden among all county residents and visitors instead of just property owners, who would bear the burden if the alternative 14 cents per thousand property tax levy was chosen as a funding source. “We think that’s the most viable solution,” Kremen said.

The working group is asking for approval of the plan by the county, all cities and fire districts, indicating their active support for the proposed solution. The proposed sales tax would need county and city of Bellingham approval to be put on the ballot in 2006.

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Services (NWFRS) fire chief Tom Fields said his organization strongly supports the new plan. “This will provide a stable funding source for Whatcom Medic One and if we don’t it will cease to exist and advanced life support services will be severely compromised,” he said. “If it fails we’ll need to look at developing a regional system and that will be really expensive. For us to gear up to that level, we don’t have the financial base to do that.”
Fields said NWFRS has already begun providing transport for BLS patients. “The constituents in the NWFRS area will not realize any significant change in service,” he said, under the new plan. NWFRS provides fire and EMS service in Blaine, Birch Bay, and areas of the county between these cities and Lynden.

However, Fields said transporting a patient to the hospital in Bellingham can take up to two hours of local EMT’s time, which is an important impact on local resources. “We’ll eventually have to hire additional people and where does that funding come from?” he said. One solution will be to work with other county fire districts to share resources or transports. “We need to support each other,” he said.

The districts would also be responsible for staffing future Medic One units. The plan calls for a new Medic One unit in 2010, stationed with and staffed by fire district #7 in Ferndale, with the next unit added in the NWFRS area. “Ten years down the road I see that as how the plan grows,” fields said.