Gov. Tony Evers announced $32 million in grants for 442 Wisconsin emergency medical service providers on Tuesday, following through on a promise to provide relief to pandemic-strained first responders.
Evers first announced $12 million in EMS Flex Grant funding during his 2022 State of the State address as part of a $22 million federal investment in emergency services through the American Rescue Plan Act. The flex grants are a one-time opportunity for EMS providers to upgrade equipment, train employees and address short-term staffing concerns as they rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
When applications opened this summer, EMS providers across the state requested a cumulative $63 million in grants — over five times the amount of available funds. Evers routed an additional $20 million into the program Tuesday as a response to the expressed need.
“Our EMS providers are often the first on the scene, providing critical care when we need them the most,” Evers said in a statement. “This funding is going to provide much-needed support to our EMS providers across the state to help ensure they have the tools and resources they need to meet the needs in their communities and continue their life-saving work.”
‘Volunteer-reliant’ EMS model creates challenges
EMS Flex Grants are welcome relief for struggling rural providers such as Merrill Fire Chief Josh Klug, who said the grants would help providers “catch up” with unplanned pandemic costs.
However, Klug worries the one-time grants won’t be enough to alleviate the small northern Wisconsin community’s chronic staffing issues and reliance on volunteers, issues most rural EMS providers face.
“We just don’t see people volunteering,” Klug said. “If [communities] go to paid [positions], then we run into funding issues because some small communities are reluctant to raise taxes, they’re up against levy limits. All these things have compounded over the years, which continue to make it a challenge.”
EMS programs were first created under the federal government’s 1973 EMS Systems Act. But according to the Cap Times, the funding of this initiative was cut in less than a decade later, pushing funding for essential health services onto local governments and municipalities. As a result, nearly 80% of EMS departments in Wisconsin adopted “volunteer-reliant” models.
When Klug first entered the emergency services field in the 2000s, he faced fierce competition for open positions. At the time, according to Klug, public sector wages and benefits were competitive with those in private sector work. In Merrill specifically, if a position was available, there may have been 35 to 45 applicants vying for competitive public sector wages and benefits.
However, as public emergency medical provider wages fell in comparison to private wages, so did the number of applicants. Klug said the city’s two currently open EMS positions have eight applicants — only half of whom meet basic requirements.
Growing challenges, shrinking funding
The other large challenge for EMS providers is statewide levy limits, according to Klug.
In 2005, Wisconsin created levy limits that prevent municipalities from raising annual property taxes at high rates, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum. However, a 2011 amendment to the law created a loophole that lets municipalities increase levy limits based on the value of new construction.
Since the 2011 amendment was implemented, communities have prioritized new development to increase their levy limits while deprioritizing upgrades to existing services like EMS. This issue has gradually escalated over the years as statewide levy limits have prevented local tax revenue from keeping up with increasing public service expenses, according to a George Washington University study.
According to Klug, declining funding combined with rising costs and higher wages among private sector jobs has squeezed emergency services of essential staff and resources.
“Employees, candidates, students who are looking for jobs understand that it’s really an employee market, so they can go wherever they want,” Klug explained. “We’ll lose people not necessarily to private sector EMS jobs, but just other private sector jobs where they can make more money.”
Klug warned that, if communities refuse to invest in EMS beyond flex grants, residents may be unable to rely on public providers when an emergency happens.
“The public has to decide: ‘Are we accepting of likely tax increases to pay for the service we come to expect?’” Klug said. “If not, the reality of having to wait for an ambulance could be out there.”