An ambulance responds to an incident in Suffolk County.

An ambulance responds to an incident in Suffolk County. Credit: Christopher Sabella

The COVID-19 pandemic put attention on every part of health care delivery, from nurses to doctors, from emergency rooms to intensive care units.

That spotlight also must be trained on the region's all-important emergency medical services.

The heroic efforts of Long Island's EMS workers, some of whom are paid, but many of whom remain volunteers, often go unheralded. That's especially true for the volunteer operations run out of the fire departments, which can't even recoup costs because they're not permitted by state law to charge for their services.

While police and other EMS can charge, fire departments are the only ones that can't, creating an unlevel playing field for the emergency services personnel on 401 ambulances, and for residents across Long Island, who depend on whatever ambulance service is closest to them.

A bill known as the EMS Cost Recovery Act and sponsored by State Sen. John Brooks, an active volunteer firefighter, would allow EMS operations under the auspices of fire departments to recover costs, by billing insurance companies, Medicare or Medicaid for the services.

It's not a new bill, and it hasn't been able to get through the State Legislature before. But after a year of a pandemic that illustrated clearly the importance of emergency services and the availability of equipment and workers, this is a bill that should become law. It would boost the fire departments, and the residents who depend on them.

As of now, fire district taxes pay for the critical services, and too often there aren't enough funds to cover EMS needs. Allowing fire districts to charge for services could fill those gaps. It should provide tax relief to property owners, or at least limit how much those taxes rise in the future.

Importantly, the funds could be used for new equipment, or to hire paid paramedics or other key staff. Making sure a fire department's EMS has what it needs is especially critical as we analyze how we must deliver care differently post-pandemic and how we address rising health care costs.

It'll also be necessary for the state to provide adequate oversight to hold fire departments accountable on how they are spending the money, and how they are utilizing taxpayer dollars differently in light of the new funding source. Brooks has said he trusts that fire departments will spend the funds appropriately. But the state must do its due diligence to show taxpayers that's true, perhaps with regionwide analysis of emergency medical and fire services, and to track how the money is spent and what individual departments need. Detailed data and regular reporting and by individual EMS departments would help.

Also key: Brooks and other advocates say those who are uninsured would not be stuck with a bill. Fire departments must make sure that their new ability to charge doesn't impact who is able to get care when a resident calls 911.

If all of our emergency medical workers and ambulance services have the right resources, the entire region will benefit.

— The editorial board