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As the heartbeat of rural Minnesota, emergency medical services (EMS) and ambulance services are the lifeline that connects communities to lifesaving care. However, this essential network is under siege, facing a perfect storm of challenges that threaten its very existence. In every corner of our state, rural ambulance services are grappling with dwindling resources, mounting costs and an uncertain future.

The crisis facing rural ambulance services is multifaceted and urgent. In addition to grappling with inadequate reimbursement rates and a decline in volunteerism, these services are burdened by staggering financial deficits. The Minnesota EMS regulatory board's report revealing a $763 million underpayment from insurance in 2023 alone underscores the severity of the situation. Without immediate intervention, the consequences are dire: Communities left vulnerable, lives at risk and the safety net of rural health care unraveling before our eyes.

The proposal now under consideration at the Minnesota State Capitol for emergency funding of $120 million is not merely a financial stopgap; it is a lifeline for communities teetering on the edge of a health care abyss. This injection of resources will ensure that ambulance services can continue their lifesaving work while long-term solutions are developed and implemented.

But funding alone is not enough. It's time to help policymakers and the public fully understand the role of ambulance services in our health care system. EMS is much more than mere transporters to hospitals. Paramedics and EMTs are front-line providers, capable of delivering critical care in the most challenging of circumstances. They are the first line of defense in emergencies and their value cannot be overstated.

Now is the time for the Minnesota Legislature to act decisively, to prioritize the health and safety of rural communities, and to ensure that no Minnesotan is left behind. Every moment counts, and every action taken today will impact the future of rural health care for years to come.

Expanding upon the critical need for emergency funding, it's essential to recognize the broader implications of the crisis facing rural ambulance services. Beyond the immediate impact on health care delivery, the closure of ambulance services threatens to exacerbate existing disparities in access to care. Rural communities, already underserved in terms of health care infrastructure, stand to suffer disproportionately if ambulance services are forced to shut their doors.

Consider the case of Dodge Center Ambulance serving rural communities spread across 175 square miles. The ambulance service in Dodge Center is not only responsible for responding to emergencies within its own jurisdiction but often must cover for neighboring areas as well. This means that EMTs and paramedics may have to travel significant distances to reach patients in need, resulting in longer response times and potentially life-threatening delays in care.

Moreover, the closure of ambulance services has far-reaching implications for local economies and public safety. In many rural communities, ambulance services are not only providers of emergency medical care but also employers and community hubs. The loss of these services would not only result in job losses but also undermine the overall resilience of these communities in the face of emergencies.

In light of these challenges, the urgency of providing emergency funding to support rural ambulance services is critical. While $120 million may seem like a significant investment, the cost of inaction far outweighs the financial burden of providing essential funding. By ensuring the continued operation of ambulance services, lawmakers can safeguard the health and well-being of rural Minnesotans and preserve the fabric of our rural way of life.

Additionally, it's crucial to address the underlying factors contributing to the crisis facing rural ambulance services. This includes exploring avenues to increase reimbursement rates and strengthen the recruitment and retention of EMTs and paramedics.

The need for emergency funding to support rural ambulance services in Minnesota is not merely a matter of financial necessity but a moral imperative. As the lifeline that connects rural communities to lifesaving care, ambulance services are indispensable to the health and well-being of our residents. By providing essential funding and implementing long-term solutions, the Minnesota Legislature has the opportunity to uphold its commitment to the health and safety of all Minnesotans, regardless of where they live.

John Fox is secretary/treasurer of the Minnesota Ambulance Association and is a paramedic for Dodge Center Ambulance. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has weighed in frequently on the subject of emergency medical services in Minnesota, including most recently with "Pay EMS crews for all calls" (March 27), pertaining to a Medicare reimbursement loophole, and "Start work now on ambulance plight" (March 2), about the Legislature's obligation this session.