By Brandi Makuski
Leaders in Portage Co. have approved a much-debated expansion of a one-paramedic, one-EMT ambulance system into the Village of Plover.
Before a packed courtroom, along with an overflow room where local EMTs and Stevens Point firefighters watched the Nov. 9 discussion via closed-circuit video, Board Chairman Phil Idsvoog reminded the Portage Co. Board of Supervisors that the $630,000 EMS service expansion contract could not be amended.
“It’s an up or down vote, yes or no,” Idsvoog said.
The crux of the argument involved what some believe to be a reduction in service because the new system would allow a one-paramedic, one-EMT (1-1) ambulance service in Plover. Those in opposition say they are so because EMTs cannot always provide the same level of care as a paramedic — a title requiring over 1,000 hours of initial training, compared to about 180 hours for an EMT.
The new ambulance will service the entire county by contract, but according to village officials, early thoughts are its primary response area would consist of the village, the Town of Plover, the Village of Whiting and parts of Buena Vista. The expansion also required a state-approved waiver from the two-paramedic system, which has been granted for the first 18 months.
The expansion is different from the two-paramedic service, known as the “Gold Standard”, previously agreed to by both Portage Co. and the City of Stevens Point when the countywide system was created in 1998, and some argue the change would fracture the county’s entire EMS system.
No citizens spoke on the matter during the public comment period, though officials from Stevens Point and Plover did make remarks to the vote.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza, who read from a prepared statement, argued several points on Thursday, noting that representatives from the Stevens Point Fire Dept., where the county’s EMS hub resides, had previously approached the county about assisting with a two-paramedic expansion into Amherst, and more recently Plover, but were turned down.
“We asked the county if there was anything they wanted to see expanded, changed or improved upon at the last contract negotiation — we were told no,” Wiza said, also pointing out some information from an internal study of the EMS system by former Emergency Management Director Matthew Dykstra was never relayed to, or sought out by, some on the County Board.
“Have you all seen this?” Wiza asked the board, holding up a map of EMS response times compiled by Dykstra, though no one responded to the question. “The data shows less than a two percent improvement in response times [under the expansion proposal].”
Wiza also argued that from a taxpayer perspective, the expansion’s $630,000 price tag wasn’t comparable to the contract the county had with the city: for $1.9 million, the city serves all of Portage Co. with about 40 paramedics and two-contracted 24/7 ambulances, to include a two-paramedic ambulance stationed in Plover for 40 hours a week. Additionally, he said, the city provides extras not included in the contract: the SPFD’s Rapid Response Unit and up to three additional ambulances to serve the county, all with two paramedics.
He also questioned the county’s decision to turn down the open-bidding process typically used when acquiring contracted services, saying the County Board did taxpayers a disservice by not seeking a better bargain with other EMS providers, to include the city.
“Everyone should be angered by this because there’s a reduction in service and [we’re] paying more,” he said.
Stevens Point Councilwoman Mary Kneebone also spoke during the meeting, calling the city’s EMS system “second-to-none in the state”.
“My taxes pay for that two-paramedic system that is the envy of many others,” she said. “So I wonder why the county is going to burden the taxpayers with a 62 increase in taxes for a lesser service?”
Plover Administrator Dan Mahoney told the County Board the 1-1 system was the choice of the county’s EMS Oversight Committee, adding the village would be required by the state to transition into the two-paramedic system anyway after the first 18 months.
“I think it’s important to point out this is an addition of an ambulance,” Mahoney said. “It is not taking away or redistributing other ambulances; adding an ambulance is good for Portage County because it’s adding to the area. [We] feel it’s also absolutely significant to reduce response times for 20,000 people by four-to-six minutes.”
Supervisor Julie Morrow said she doesn’t understand why the county turned down the two-paramedic option for the village, saying it appeared the county “was so against” the Gold Standard used in the city.
“I’ve heard the question asked a number of times,” replied Supervisor Jim Gifford, “‘Why are you so against two paramedics?’ Well, we’ve had a city component in the countywide ambulance system for a lot of years, but the last 10 years, we’ve had Amherst [EMS]. And Amherst has not been providing two paramedics, and I’ve not heard one complaint. Why, suddenly, when it’s the Village of Plover, do we need two paramedics?”
Supervisor Bob Gifford said he’d planned to vote against the proposal, but after talking with a local volunteer firefighter, he had a change of heart.
“This contract will give one more ambulance, and we’re going to be mandated to go to two paramedics in 2019 anyway,” he said.
Arguably the most dramatic comments of the evening came from Portage Co. Executive Patty Dreier, who said the entire countywide system was “in crisis” and placing thinly-veiled blame for the fracture on the SPFD.
“Early this year we received resolutions from half of our 27 municipalities in Portage County asking for changes and more responsiveness,” Drier said. “The county has attempted to make steps in that direction, and were undermined by a contract partner.”
Dreier said the result of that interference by the “contract partner” (later identified by Supervisor Meleesa Johnson as SPFD) is divisiveness between paramedic and first responder groups, and municipalities have been “pitted” against one another.
“Obviously we cannot continue moving forward with the ‘coordinated system’ aspect in such jeopardy as it is right this minute,” Dreier said, adding she planned to present “a whole litany of options,” including independent and enterprise models, for the EMS system during a Portage Co. Towns Association meeting in Eau Plaine on Nov. 13.
She also plans to survey all municipalities in the county regarding EMS before January.
“If we can’t make it work together, collaboratively with our contract partners, then it’s not going to make it,” Dreier said. “An EMS system is intended to bring aid to those in need, not create divides, not to bloody the waters…we need all partners at the table with a cooperative spirit without any turfdoms by anyone.”
Co. Board Supervisor Jeanne Dodge also had dark predictions for the countywide EMS system.
Dodge, who previously served on the EMS Oversight Committee and also currently serves as a Town of Stockton Supervisor, said the county “had always looked at expanding the service, whether it was to Grant, Belmont or Plover.”
“It sounds to me like the system is fracturing,” she said. “If we don’t start collaborating, then as a [Stockton] Town Board Supervisor I’m obligated to vote yes so that I have, as a supervisor, another option for the town when this whole thing crashes.”