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Prescription for ambulance issues can’t just be injections of tax dollars

Ely Echo - Staff Photo - Create Article

As rural ambulance services struggle to stay afloat, not only in the Ely area but across Minnesota, state officials have taken notice.

An issue that perhaps flew under the radar as recently as 12 months ago is now front and center in St. Paul, where lawmakers as well as Gov. Tim Walz have both recognized the problem and floated plans to pump more state dollars into the system, including $10 million in direct funding.

Yet despite the additional attention, news releases from area legislators and the clear recognition that the status quo is not working - those hoping for a quick fix or a lasting lifeline from St. Paul seem to be in for disappointment.

State Rep. Roger Skraba (R) of Ely conceded this week that legislation that would pump about $120 million into rural ambulance operations faces a steep if not impossible climb.

And DFL Gov. Tim Walz, while recognizing the plight faced by rural EMS operations, floated a plan that would deliver a mere fraction of the $120 million sought by area legislators such as Skraba, State Sen. Grant Hauschild (D-Hermantown) and State Rep. Dave Lislegard (D-Aurora).

So now what?

Well despite opposition to the $120 million lifeline, which essentially would plug the bath of red ink incurred by ambulance operations last year, there appears to be bipartisan support for some level of action by the state.

The Walz plan includes a $6 million set-aside for innovative options, all but urging local entities to think outside the box and come up with new ways to fund and sustain ambulance operations.

We’re not sure how that would look locally, but the $6 million carrot ought to be reason enough for the area ambulance service, the joint powers board that oversees it and perhaps neighboring communities to come together and develop new ideas or perhaps even a new model.

The recent developments also throw cold water on any expectation that the state is going to come forward and bail out local ambulance operations, not for one year and certainly not for the long term.

Just as Ely city officials have been quick to dismiss proposals for a massive increase in the local subsidy, there appears little appetite at the state level to come up with the amount of public funds needed simply to make local operations whole.

A state bailout is no option, either temporarily or in the long run. Yet at the same time, the state is clearly aware of the problem and a helping hand of some sorts is not just wishful thinking but likely.  Only not at the level that local ambulance providers might want.

That’s probably a good thing. It likely will take movement on several fronts, from the way ambulance service is delivered to how it is funded, in order to make a badly-needed service sustainable and available for all of us - whenever we might need it.

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