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Seconds and minutes matter when there's a medical emergency. It's imperative that lawmakers take the same time-is-of-the-essence approach when it comes to resuscitating the state's ailing emergency medical response system.

Having trained responders and an ambulance show up swiftly after calling 911 should not depend on where Minnesotans live or happen to be at the time. Yet rural communities in particular are struggling to provide this core public service as populations dwindle and the costs of providing this care continue to exceed reimbursements for it. A historic workforce shortage in Minnesota and elsewhere has compounded the problem.

"The issue is so acute in my district and in northern Minnesota that it's almost harder to find communities that aren't dealing with challenges than it is to find ones that are," said Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown. "It's nearly everybody once you get north of Cotton." Cotton is a small St. Louis County community about 36 miles north of Duluth.

The challenges aren't limited to northern Minnesota.

"This is something that health care providers, law enforcement and county commissioners are talking with me about on regular basis," said Sen. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls. "We would have situations where it could take 45 minutes for an ambulances to arrive in a rural community. To me, that is just not an acceptable level of care and misses the expectation that my constituents have."

These struggles are not new. A sharply critical 2022 report from the respected Office of the Legislative Auditor spotlighted the dire situation, noting not only "persistent staffing and funding challenges across the state," but also a system that has lacked "meaningful oversight."

The report concluded that the state's Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board (EMSRB) has been "largely ineffective in its regulation" and that its board composition at the time and responsibilities created "risks for conflicts of interest." Since then, there have been changes at the EMSRB, with administrative and performance measurement fixes outlined in an update a year ago that is now posted online alongside the auditor's report.

These improvements are welcome, but the ongoing challenges with ambulance care sounded in Hauschild's and Rasmusson's districts underscore that there's much more work to do. While lawmakers are charting a less ambitious course this session after the sweeping agenda enacted in 2023, that's not an excuse for inaction in 2024 on this critical issue.

Fortunately, the Legislature's Emergency Medical Services Task Force understands this. Its members, who include Rasmusson and Hauschild, are commendably pushing hard to pass sensible reforms this year. Its membership roster illustrates an advantage of having a citizen Legislature. Several of its other members bring deep expertise to the issue because they are current or former emergency medical professionals, including Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, and Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley.

The task force conducted field hearings around the state, with its last scheduled meeting occurring in mid-February and a report of recommendations expected later this year. Often, legislative action occurs after the report's release, but "there are things we can start on now that address immediate needs while we work on longer-term solutions," Seeberger told an editorial writer.

Among the short-term reforms that merit consideration:

· Redesigning the EMSRB. One promising proposal involves having the board report directly to the governor's office. That hopefully would improve accountability and give a higher profile to this part of the health care system in the competition for additional public resources.

⋅ Establishing "innovation zones" across the state to evaluate new models for providing emergency medical responses.

⋅ Easing the process for Minnesotans who have let their emergency medical response licenses lapse but want to renew them.

⋅ One-time funding for communities where the emergency response crisis is especially acute.

The bipartisan work by the EMS task force members is an excellent example of political teamwork at the Capitol. Their colleagues in the House and Senate ought to heed their grim assessment of the system's vital signs and begin the work now on its recovery.