Municipalities question cost increases for Essex Rescue

Published: Jan. 3, 2023 at 11:20 PM EST
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ESSE, Vt. (WCAX) - The costs for emergency services are on the rise in Vermont. Now, cities and towns are grappling with the financial fallout.

On Monday night, the town of Essex voted to sign a letter to Essex Rescue with a list of requests to help them better understand why costs are going up. In the coming weeks, Jericho, Underhill, Essex Junction, and Westford will also consider signing on. The letter asks Essex Rescue to provide more transparency, asking for quarterly financial reports and a voting member on the rescue’s board. Additionally, they wish to see an operational assessment of the EMS provider.

Colleen Ballard, the executive director of Essex Rescue, says they’re willing to work with the municipalities, but explains there are a few different reasons for costs going up. “I mean, we’re hitting budget deficits the past few years and we haven’t changed our per capita for quite a while,” she said.

In the fiscal year 2023, the cost of using Essex Rescue went up 182%. In 2024, it will go up another 65%. Ballard says the increase is the result of eliminating the department’s deficit, a decrease in volunteers and insufficient reimbursement from Medicare. “Everything we pay for is paid for from our operating budget or set aside in our capital reserve,” Ballard said. “Knowing if I didn’t make changes, we’d be eating that capital reserve and we would need more money to replace the money we took out.”

Essex Selectboard Chair Andy Watts says officials are doing their due diligence when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. “It’s also a challenging year for the town because the village has separated,” Watts said. “We’re facing a large tax increase anyway, so to have a surprise tax increase on top of it was a bit concerning.”

The city of Essex Junction will also be voting on whether to sign onto the letter in the coming weeks. Council President Andrew Brown says this is part of a bigger problem with the health care system. “The funding mechanisms are not sustainable. How they were created back in the ‘50s need to change,” he said. “The federal funding mechanism needs to keep up with the times and not continuously be flat-funded.”

Will Moran, the EMS chief for the Vermont Department of Health, says the number of EMS calls statewide increased by roughly 12% from 2021 to 2022. Meanwhile, there were fewer volunteer EMTs and paramedics, meaning an increase in department payrolls. Since 2018, Essex Rescue has lost approximately 30 volunteers.

“We have to see services meet the demands of individuals and they’re looking for higher rates of pay, just like we see in nursing and other health care professions,” Moran said. He adds these calls are funded through reimbursements from the state and insurance. Most other costs are left to municipalities. “We’ve seen more recently, the cost of providing EMS has outpaced that of reimbursement,” Moran said. “With budgets relatively flat and costs on the rise, this disparity is continuing developing across the state.”

Ballard says they’re open to the recommendations in the letter. However, she is concerned about the costs of quarterly financial audits, which they are not legally required to do. “We’re happy to do what is needed, but it can’t come at the cost of this organization anymore,” she said.

For more context, the per capita rate in the municipalities utilizing Essex Rescue will go from $3.87 to $18 by the end of 2023. Ballard and Watts say this is on par with surrounding rescue services.

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