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Okla. lawmakers study improving ambulance service

Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, is pictured in a Public Health Committee meeting in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Lawmakers launched a legislative study Thursday to explore ways of improving funding for ambulance services. Cox, an emerge
Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, is pictured in a Public Health Committee meeting in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Lawmakers launched a legislative study Thursday to explore ways of improving funding for ambulance services. Cox, an emergency room physician, says some Oklahomans have excellent service but others live 45 minutes away from the nearest ambulance.
Sue Ogrocki, Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers and emergency medical service providers met Thursday to explore ways to improve the funding and availability of ambulance services that operators said are disappearing across the state.

EMS providers said at least 40 ambulance services — many in rural areas — have closed in recent years as revenue has declined and expenses have risen. An aging population and low population density makes it hard for ambulance services to recover their costs when they respond to a call, they said.

"The principle issue is sustainability," Owasso Fire Department Chief Chris Garrett told members of the House Public Health Committee. "The community is going to grow and call volume is going to grow. The dollars just are harder to find."

Rodney Johnson of the Medic Institute estimated that fully funding EMS services statewide will cost up to $40 million.

"We have to start to rebuild the system," Johnson said. But lawmakers have resisted spending increases in recent years as they struggle to maintain funding for core public services amid tumbling state revenues due to the nation's economic downturn and low energy prices.

Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, said funding and availability of emergency medical services varies widely across the state.

"Depending on where you live, you may have excellent service or you may be 45 minutes away from an ambulance," he said. Cox, an emergency room physician, said funding ambulance services is not a high priority for most people in spite of the service that's provided.

Rebecca Smith of Muskogee County Emergency Medical Services said her service barely breaks even on the $9 million in operating revenue it receives. Smith said her service received almost 21,000 service calls last year, half of them Medicare patients.

She urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would raise or eliminate the millage rate cap on property tax revenue to support emergency medical services that was authorized by voters in a statewide election that created emergency medical districts in 1976. Under the current cap, Smith said she paid just $34 in property taxes last year to support ambulance services.

Operators warned lawmakers that federal funding for emergency medical services is declining and that any new revenue may have to come from the state and local levels.

"A portfolio of funding avenues is necessary," said Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa.

Ambulance operators also encouraged lawmakers to explore a variety of methods to increase the number of ambulances in the state, including creation of regional ambulance operators that serve more than one county.

Recent legislation urged county commissions to take a more active role in providing emergency medical services by studying the need for ambulance services and submitting reports to the state. But commissioners in only 28 of Oklahoma's 77 counties have complied.