An unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is a drop in emergency medical services calls, which has put a financial squeeze on local EMS systems.
Fewer calls means less revenue for local EMS providers as they can bill for some services. Emergency medical services also provide non-emergency transports from one medical facility to another, but those also have dropped off during the pandemic. Combined with the additional expense of personal protective equipment for first responders, the situation has strained EMS coffers.
“Financially, it’s pretty significant,” Burnet City Manager David Vaughn said. “We’re looking at about a $250,000 drop next year in revenue from that, which is probably in the neighborhood of about 15 percent reduction in revenue.”
The city of Burnet operates its own EMS through the Burnet Fire Department. It provides emergency medical services to a large portion of northern Burnet County.
EMS should not be compared to a regular business, Vaughn said, and the city will continue providing the necessary service.
“A lot of times in a lot of businesses, you can say, you know, our business is down, we are just going to reduce staff,” Vaughn said. “We can’t really do that.”
Maintaining a fully staffed EMS is essential, Vaughn said.
“You can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Burnet Fire Chief Mark Ingram said. “Today, we might have 10 EMS calls. Tomorrow, we might have 25. There’s no way to predict it. You don’t know when the car wrecks are going to happen, when the people are going to get sick. You have to staff to handle everything you can.”
Staffing is the primary cost for EMS systems. Marble Falls Area EMS — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that contracts with several cities — spends 80-85 percent of its budget on staffing, according to Operations Director Kevin Naumann. The agency services southern Burnet County and southeastern Llano County.
“With transport being down, then that results in fewer dollars coming to us,” Naumann said. “That’s compounded by the fact that we spend so much extra money on PPE supplies, so it’s kind of got us in a tight spot.”
As a nonprofit, Marble Falls Area EMS doesn’t have revenue streams such as taxes like a municipality or an emergency services district. COVID-19 has even prevented the organization from putting on its biannual fish fry fundraiser.
“Not being able to have those right now has put a pinch on things,” Naumann said. “Maybe, eventually, we’ll be able to do it, but it’ll probably be a scaled-back version, so we likely won’t see the revenue from that we normally would.”
More than that, donations appear to be down, Naumann said.
“People that would normally donate I think are maybe a little bit scared about what the stock market might do, or what might happen, presidential election. All of those compounding factors have them sealed up on their pocketbook for the time being,” he said. “It’s a different landscape than we’ve ever had before.
“Even if people can’t write the check right now, at least send a note of encouragement or when you see (EMS crew) in H-E-B or wherever else say, ‘Hey, we appreciate you,’” Naumann added. “That goes a long way. They’re getting pulled in every direction, but they’re still out there doing good work and taking care of people.”