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Will Wash. voters renew tax levy to fund EMS?

In 2013, the levy raised $2.5M to bridge the gap between what insurance pays and the actual costs of services, and helped pay for training

By Andy Porter
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — A property tax levy that has helped fund emergency medical services for more than two decades is once again up for a vote.

First approved in 1990, the EMS levy on the Feb. 11 ballot will renew the current levy rate of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The levy will not increase property taxes, officials say.

The levy was last renewed by voters in 2008. The current levy will expire at the end of this year if not renewed by voters. If it is renewed, it will run from 2015 through the end of 2020.

Emergency medical runs make up the majority of daily calls for most local fire departments. Chief Rocky Eastman of Fire District No. 4, which covers the unincorporated area around Walla Walla and College Place, said his department’s caseload is typical.

“Locally, we’re running about 65-75 percent of our calls as EMS, and that’s pretty much across the board for all the other departments as well,” he said.

In 2013, the levy raised about $2.5 million to help bridge the gap between what Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance pays for emergency medical services and what EMS services actually cost, according to Patricia Courson, Walla Walla County EMS director.

The levy funds are divided between the city of Walla Walla and College Place fire departments and the eight county fire districts. The funds are distributed based on each district’s assessed property value, population and volume of calls.

By law, EMS levy dollars can be used only to provide emergency medical care, which includes related personnel costs, training, equipment and supplies.

Courson said that limitations in recent years on how elected officials can raise money and how EMS reimbursements are made have increased the importance of the EMS levy dollars.

These limitations include the federal Balanced Budget Act, established in 2001, that has fixed Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements at 31 cents on the dollar. Others were Initiative 695, which reduced state funds from car tab fees, and Initiative 747, which put a 1 percent cap on property tax increases without a vote of the people.

In the meantime, the number of emergency medical calls have increased steadily. Between 2003 and 2013, the number grew from 5,080 to 8,000, an increase of about 57 percent.

The number one call is for an elderly person possibly injured in a fall. The second is for cardiac arrest or other heart-related issues, Courson said.

The levy also helps pay for the increased training emergency medical workers must have to meet certification requirements.

According to EMS officials, a first responder rating requires 54 hours of classroom training plus five patient contacts at an initial cost of $500 for tuition, books and lab fees.

Emergency medical technicians require an additional 110 hours of training plus 10 hours of hospital observation with an initial cost of $1,200.

Paramedics require all of the same basic training first responders and EMTs receive, plus 1,200 to 2,000 hours of training along with hospital and field experience at an initial cost of $8,400.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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