OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Lawmakers gathered in Olympia on Monday for the start of a new legislative session where a tough battle over budget cuts could reverberate in rural fire stations in the Yakima Valley and across the state.
Potential cuts to schools and social services have gotten headlines, but a legislative proposal to charge fees for emergency medical responder certification has local fire chiefs worried it will drive away volunteers.
"I understand the state's need for revenues, but I think this (proposal) is in the wrong direction," said East Valley Fire Department Chief George Spencer, who supervises about 35 volunteer and paid on-call firefighters.
The bill, HB2141, is designed to replace $1.7 million in general state funding the Department of Health expects to see cut in the current legislative session, said Janet Kastl, the department's director of Community Health Systems. The bill had a hearing before the House Ways & Means Committee in December but is still awaiting a vote.
The proposed fees, which would be set by the Department of Health and not the Legislature, could range from $40 every three years for emergency medical responders, who require 40 to 60 hours of training for certification, to $200 every three years for paramedics, who put in thousands of hours of training and are considered the most skilled of any emergency medical service personnel.
Kastl said the estimated fees would raise about $900,000 for the state's EMS and Trauma System in the current biennium and more than $2 million in 2013-2015.
The bill would also allow the Health Department to charge agencies fees for aid services (an estimated $150 every two years) and ambulance services (an estimated $300 every two years), Kastl said.
Kastl said the EMS and Trauma System is regulated in the same way as other health care providers and services in the state, but it is the only one paid for with state funding instead of fees.
"This would basically line EMS up in the same way the rest of the health system is funded," she said.
Brian Vogel, chief of Yakima County Fire District No. 5, said his department is large enough to pay for the volunteers' certification fees if that becomes the case, but it would hurt smaller departments. Vogel also questioned the state's justification for charging fees by saying most emergency services training and recertification is done with Yakima County Emergency Medical Services.
"We pass the paperwork up to the state saying this person has met the needed training and they just issue you a new license," Vogel said. "That's the part boggling the chiefs' minds."
Only five personnel members are full time at the East Valley Fire Department, Spencer said, and 60 percent to 70 percent of his volunteer staff have an emergency medical technician's license. He said charging those members $125 every three years for recertification, an estimate the Department of Health is proposing, would deter more from seeking training that already demands more than 120 hours of their time.
"I think it's unfortunate again in a difficult financial time that the state is providing us with another unfunded mandate," said Spencer, who is also chairman of the Yakima County Fire Chiefs Association.
He said he and other Yakima County fire chiefs plan to raise the issue with local legislators Jan. 25 on their annual legislative day.
At least one local legislator, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, already opposes the bill.
"They're already struggling to get volunteers to do these kinds of services; now if you're going to do it you have to pay?" King said. "To me the logic isn't there."
Kastl said the number of emergency medical service staff has stayed static in the last 20 years, but the number of volunteers in the field has decreased from 66 percent to 40 percent in that time. The proposed fees increase according to the skill level of emergency medical staff, and Kastl said the positions facing higher fees are vastly represented by career personnel.
Statewide, volunteers comprise 91.8 percent of emergency medical responders, 43 percent of emergency medical technicians (who have at least twice as much training as responders) and only 2.8 percent of paramedics, according to the Health Department.
Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, said he would like to see more dialogue on ways to fund EMS certification before the state starts charging volunteers for training.
"This is going to be the flavor of the legislative cycle this year," Ross said. "The state of Washington is going to be looking to find someone else to pay for everything."