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Task force working on keeping EMS in Idaho sustainable

An ambulance waits outside the hospital in Gooding
Gustavo Sagrero
/
Boise State Public Radio
A Gooding County ambulance waits outside the emergency department at North Canyon Medical Center

Many emergency medical services in Idaho are struggling as a dwindling number of volunteers try to keep up with the state's overall rapidly-growing population and an increasing interest in outdoor recreation.

“Our worry here in Idaho — and every other state in the country — is that we're going to get to a place where EMS is just not reasonably available," said Wayne Denny, the chief of the state’s Bureau of EMS and Preparedness.

That sentiment was reinforced by a 2021 report from Idaho’s Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE), which surveyed about half of the state's EMS agencies and found about 80% of them had insufficient staff and funding to meet community needs, and that it often affected ambulance response times.

Since June, Denny and a group including paramedics, firefighters and county commissioners have been meeting monthly in the "EMS Sustainability Task Force."

The task force is working on addressing some of the findings and recommendations in the OPE report centered around how EMS in Idaho is governed and funded, whether certain levels of emergency medical coverage should be required and how to better support emergency personnel, including volunteers.

Denny said the group is waiting until the 2024 legislative session to bring forward specific proposals. This year, it's focusing on education and data gathering.

One way it hopes to do that is by hiring six emergency medical service planners throughout the state who will assess counties' service needs and help them come up with their own EMS plans.

It's also holding an EMS day at the Idaho State Capitol on Jan. 23 to inform lawmakers and the public of the challenges the group is discussing, and will put forward a resolution highlighting future plans for policy actions.

Denny said it's premature to say what the 2024 legislation might target, but he said there are some central questions.

For example, one finding in the OPE report was that Idaho code does not consider EMS an essential government service.

The task force is looking into changing that, but to establish it as essential requires defining who’s responsible for providing it. Denny said it would be logical for that responsibility to reside with counties as they cover the whole state, but it’s likely counties don’t have the funding to cover all associated costs.

That’s where some assistance from the state might come into play, Denny said.

There’s also the question of what services EMS agencies would be required to provide – and how quickly. The task force has started to identify how long it takes for ambulances to respond across the state, and the time varies widely, from an average of seven minutes in Madison County to 23 minutes in Clark County. But Denny said that measure is not perfect.

Additionally, there are several ways the state could support, and incentivize, EMS providers and volunteers, whether through health benefit programs, retirement funds or training opportunities. Those were among the suggestions laid out in the OPE report.

Denny said the task force will continue working on these ideas into the new year.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.