In as little as 18 months, Sussex county residents could see a decline in ambulance service if new funding sources cannot be found.
But Sussex County officials say proposed legislation requiring counties to contribute a minimum of 15 percent toward the costs of operating volunteer ambulance companies may not be the answer.
County officials don't dispute that ambulance services are feeling the pinch of diminishing funding, but they say Sussex County already contributes $1.5 million annually to support local ambulance services. By state law, volunteer fire departments have been forced to hire certified emergency medical technicians to provide around-the-clock basic life support and ambulance service.
“We might already be at 15 percent or even more,” said County Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, a 44-year member of Seaford Volunteer Fire Department. “This is a voluntary contribution. We want to know what the 15 percent will be covering.”
County officials know where their existing contribution goes: it helps fund labor costs for paid emergency medical technicians.
Council agreed with Vincent that the proposed mandate in House Bill 315, which gives the county no oversight or input, was not in the best interest of Sussex County. They urged Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin, who serves as the county's legislative liaison, to lobby against the bill.
Task force report shows losses
A 2013 ambulance and EMS task force report found the public may begin to see diminished ambulance service in as little as eight to 18 months unless ambulance funding is addressed.
In 2012, according to the report, 40 of Delaware's 55 volunteer ambulance companies operated at a loss.
The loss is dramatic in Sussex County, where 16 of 21 companies operated at a deficit. Cape Region departments fared better than average, with two of three posting a surplus in operations. Rehoboth Beach – with 8 full-time and 25 part-time staff – lost $51,000 on a budget of nearly $765,000.
Lewes – with nine full-time and 14 part time-staff – had a surplus of nearly $162,000 with a budget of $870,000. Milton – with one full-time and seven part-time staff – had a surplus of $21,000 with a budget of $365,600. In 2012, Sussex companies hired 116 full-time and 297 part-time certified EMTs and spent $6.8 million on salaries.
The total loss for Sussex County was $1.6 million; the statewide loss was $8.5 million.
“If we agree with this we could be sending a signal that could result in more unfunded mandates coming to us,” said Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel. “The shifting of costs to the county has to stop.”
The bill's major sponsor is Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, who also chaired the task force. Local legislators signing on as sponsors include Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro; Rep. Dan Short, R-Seaford; Rep. Dave Wilson, R-Milford; and Rep. Ronald Gray, R-Selbyville.
Two other bills are aimed at raising revenue for volunteer ambulance companies. House Bill 315 would add a $10 surcharge to all criminal fines to be distributed to companies throughout the state and Senate Bill 207 would require healthcare insurers' allowable charges to not be less than the cost of basic life support services provided by the state's ambulance companies.