OKLAHOMA CITY -- Two northeastern Oklahoma lawmakers are introducing bills aimed at rescuing rural ambulance services that are struggling to survive. Since 2000, about 50 ambulance services have gone out of business in the state.
Other districts have picked up those services, and new emergency care services have emerged. "But it is still true that there are at least 12 communities that have completely lost their ambulance services, and some rural areas have never had a service," said R. Shawn Rogers, emergency medical services director for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Officials fear that several of the ambulance services managing to hang on are on the brink of closure over the next year. Rep. Paul Roan, D-Tahlequah, is proposing a bill intended to double the amount that residents could pay in property taxes to keep their local ambulance services operating. The question would have to go to a vote of the people.
Oklahoma law now provides that voters in a specific ambulance district can earmark as much as 3 mills to help operate an ambulance service. Roan's bill would allow voters to designate as much as 6 mills, but that could occur only if voters statewide had authorized the doubling of millage. A mill is one-tenth of a cent, or $1 for every $1,000 in assessed property value.
Oklahoma City and Tulsa have adopted other means of paying for ambulance services throughout their city limits. Tulsa residents pay a fee of $3.64 a month for ambulance service. Oklahoma City's fee, which will go into effect in September, will be $3.65.
A second bill proposed by Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Pryor, is intended to help ambulance services so that they are not obliged to serve areas outside their districts, which has been a contributing factor to so many rural ambulance services going out of business.
The state Health Department requires that ambulances must operate under what is called a "duty to act." This means that if there is no ambulance service in an area, the closest operating ambulance service is obligated to provide service. Bob Hawley, LeFlore County's emergency medical services director, explained recently how this works. At least parts of Pushmataha County, which shares a common border with part of LeFlore County, have been without ambulance service. Therefore, LeFlore County ambulances are required to provide that service. Hawley said that even though Pushmataha County residents are not paying for an ambulance service, they benefit from LeFlore County's service. This causes two distinct problems for the service Hawley runs. The first is that it is not fair for LeFlore County residents to have to pay so that Pushmataha County is served by an ambulance, which increases the operating expenses for Hawley.
The second problem is that if LeFlore County's ambulances are on a call in Pushmataha County, which could entail a run of 45 minutes or more, LeFlore County residents would be left without service if an emergency were to arise there. Sherrer said he is contemplating a bill that would set a date when adjoining ambulance districts do not have to pick up the slack.
Russ Calhoun, the EMS coordinator for Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, has proposed that after Jan. 1, 2011, the "duty to act" rule no longer would be in effect. Sherrer has not determined what kind of cutoff date he might propose in legislation.
The purpose of setting a date for discontinuation so far into the future is so that rural areas not now served by ambulances would have time to work on the problem. Roan said the eventual solution is for the state to consider requiring counties to set up rural ambulance districts so that every part of the state is served. He said he might consider legislation to get that process started.