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EMS $1M tuition aid short-term fix for a long-term problem

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(The Center Square) — A long-term funding fix for EMS agencies across the commonwealth remains elusive — but Pennsylvania will offer $1 million in tuition assistance for emergency responders to recruit and retain workers.

The program will draw from the Fireworks Tax Act for three years and make grants available to Pennsylvania residents certified as an emergency medical responder, emergency medical technician, advanced emergency medical technician, or a paramedic.

EMS agencies can also apply for $1,250 in reimbursement for recruitment and retention expenses.

“Emergency medical services professionals are an essential part of the health care system,” Acting Secretary of Health Debra Bogen said in a press release. “Knowing that you will have well-trained and qualified individuals arriving to your door 24/7 in the event of an emergency is a safeguard that we want for all Pennsylvanians.”

The administration also flagged the reimbursement rate increase for ambulance services last year, a long-standing concern for EMS agencies that cannot cover the expense of ambulance runs.

In his budget address, Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed doubling grant funding for fire companies and EMS agencies from $30 million to $60 million, paid for with funds from the Property Tax Relief Fund. But Republicans have been wary of such a transfer.

“Providing funds to support emergency services is critically important; however, anytime money is taken from the Property Tax Relief Fund, fewer dollars are available to help reduce property taxes for Pennsylvania homeowners,” said Charlie O’Neill, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee Republicans.

The bigger problem remains of how to get EMS and volunteer fire companies on stable financial ground. Though the grants are appreciated, most of them range from $10,000-$15,000 per company. Leaders have warned for years that the EMS system is on the brink of collapsefree rides and worker shortages have left many places, especially rural Pennsylvania, in a bind.

One issue is that EMS agencies are legally required to respond to emergency calls — but local governments are not required to provide funding. The system in the past relied upon volunteers and fundraising efforts in the past, but the decline of working-aged residents and rural population loss has left many agencies in a bind.

Some municipalities have, in recent years, provided more funding to keep EMS agencies running.

This week, Middlesex Township in Butler County announced $30,000 for its local EMS provider, following other nearby townships.

In Warren County, townships have banded together to create a countywide EMS commission to pool funds and nearby Forest County is considering an EMS authority to cover four townships, paid for with a property assessment fee.

Other places have looked toward merging agencies to survive. In the northern tier, local EMS groups have joined into a regional EMS unit to provide service.

Though the situation is dire in rural Pennsylvania, major issues remain in the cities, too. A recent audit noted that in Pittsburgh, the city’s emergency medical services are short-staffed — some EMTs and paramedics routinely work 18-hour shifts to ensure services get provided.