Grappling with ambulance funding


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The Johnson County Ambulance Service won’t be getting any smaller in the upcoming budget year, but it also might not get an additional two paramedics for its peak hours, county officials said.

More staffing is likely in upcoming years as demand for the service continues to increase, said Johnson County Board of Supervisor Terrence Neuzil. If the supervisors don’t provide the extra funds this year, it will mean more overtime or part-time hours, he said.

The ambulance service has seen an increase of 1,850 calls countywide between fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2009, representing a 33 percent jump. A growing county, busier interstates, coupled with a jump in alcohol-related ambulance calls during late weekend nights is stressing the service, Neuzil and paramedics said.

“We’re well aware of the issue,” said Supervisor Rod Sullivan. “We’re just not completely sure what to do about it.”

He said the major fear is that the number of emergencies will outpace the service’s ability to respond. He said he doesn’t think the county has reached that point yet.

Paramedics said they are strapped for resources during peak hours, because more young Iowa City men and women are drinking at dangerously high levels, according to a Daily Iowan investigation.

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Sleeping on weekend nights used to be common for paramedics. Now because of the high volume of calls, many of which are alcohol-related and occur in rapid succession, service members say sleep only happens here and there.

The new shift would cost around $77,000, said Johnson County Ambulance Director Steve Spenler.

Because of budget issues, supervisors have said in the past they want to keep expenditures down, and they are asking for a 2 percent reduction.

But there’s a another problem with getting funding: Johnson County taxpayers might find it difficult to pay for irresponsible binge drinkers, Neuzil said.

“When it’s just because somebody drinks so much, I think that is just frustrating for a taxpayer to subsidize that,” he said.

Many UI students are getting more drunk, according to Health Iowa. Those arrested for public intoxication are also getting drunker.

In a sample of the first Saturday after UI students returned in the fall, alcohol levels for those arrested for the offense in Iowa City jumped 22 percent, from 0.179 to 0.229 in a six-year period.

Some local legislators said they were alarmed by the increasing severity of drinking.

“It puts all of the people in downtown at risk,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City. She said she wanted to know what is causing the increase.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the over-consumption problem is a serious one with no easy solution. Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said he likes the direction the communitywide Partnership for Alcohol Safety is heading. He said the unified approach is good because in the past the approach was more piecemeal.

He said making any changes to the drinking culture will take political will and strong leadership.
Iowa City city councilors suggested a number of alcohol-related ideas at their work session Monday night, including restricting price on some drink specials, increasing liquor license fees, and monitoring cover charges.

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