Fixing problems with emergency medical service dominated county budget discussions this past week.
Commissioners spent 2½ hours Friday talking to EMS director Ed Debesis, and 3 hours Monday with an accountant talking about scraping together the money to fix lack of timely availability of ambulance crews.
“We’re juggling hand grenades. Some people are going to be mad and that’s just how it’s going to be,” Commissioner Dan Holub said.
Commissioners mulled over hiring additional full-time EMTs and a paramedic, having two stations with full-time EMTs, and possibly paying EMTs for ambulance runs instead of hours on call.
They estimated that adding two full-time employees would cost $92,000 per year plus benefits.
After Holub suggested paying EMTs for runs rather than being on call, Commissioner Lori Lalouette said there might be enough savings in that to add another full-time crew member.
But Debesis said he believes changing to a pay-per-run system would make matters worse.
“We cannot restrict anybody if they are not being paid,” Debesis said. “You can’t restrict them to be within five minutes of the station.”
With fewer part-time EMTs and ambulances tied up taking patients to out-of-town hospitals, no one may be available when an emergency happens, Holub said.
“We have worked on this the last eight years, and we’ve just not solved the problem,” Commissioner Randy Dallke said. “I don’t know what else to try.”
Dallke said one constituent told him he’d rather have an ambulance arrive on time than have economic development.
Holub, who expressed concern about cost and naturally slower response times in rural areas, said neighbors could help when there’s a medical emergency.
Lalouette countered that the county needed to cover the basics of public safety, police, and roads.
The county increased what it paid for EMS last year without making sure it was getting more quality, Dallke said.
Lalouette suggested having off-duty nurses on call when ambulance crews are out, and asked whether a first responder could take an ambulance to the scene while EMTs headed to the call from further away.
Dallke estimated it would take three or four mills more property tax for the ambulance service to come up to speed.
Commissioners aren’t sure whether EMS is an exception to the law that would require a vote for a property tax increase, though Debesis said he had heard it was an exception.
“I think we need to take baby steps in this process,” Debesis said.