Concern over EMS in rural areas prompts task force

An ambulance and driver are illuminated as they pass
A Hennepin Emergency Medical Services ambulance drives west on I-94 in Minneapolis while responding to a rush hour crash.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Emergency medical services across Minnesota are facing a wide range of problems — from staffing to finances to coverage — that are especially prevalent in rural communities.

A new bipartisan legislative task force looking for solutions to those issues had its first meeting Friday. 

The Joint Task Force on Emergency Medical Services includes elected officials who work in the EMS field, several from greater Minnesota. 

While ambulance response times in urban areas can be as low as five to 10 minutes, those numbers are much worse in some rural parts of the state, said Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount.

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“Their areas are in dire need,” he said. “We have reports around the state of 90-minute response times. Try to hold your breath for 90 minutes. It’s not going to go well. And so we need to dig into this problem and fix it. It's dire.”

Huot says the group plans to have formal recommendations in 2025, but will suggest solutions ahead of that, as they see them. He says the task force will be meeting across the state and they are looking for public input.

The task force comes on the heels of a report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor released in 2022 that found that EMS services have insufficient oversight, outdated service areas, recruitment and retention issues and revenue shortfalls, among other things.

That report said that in 2021, 277 ambulance services in the state responded to around 540,000 emergency calls across the state.

Dr. Mike Wilcox, a physician in New Prague, spoke during a press conference before the task force’s first meeting Friday. 

“I am concerned about the sustainability of EMS in the rural parts of our state,” he said. “It is near collapse, and it needs to be appropriately watched over and assisted to provide ongoing care for the folks who need EMS services within these areas. It’s a worsening issue.”

Wilcox says four major factors are heightening EMS issues in rural Minnesota: financial struggles, an aging population, a lack of retention and recruitment of workers, and the large service areas. 

Rep. Huot says the task force will be looking at what changes need to be made at the regulatory level for EMS in the state. But he also says that public input on this issue is key.

“We know what the industry is going to tell us, but we don’t know what Joe Public or Sheila Public is going to tell us,” he said. “And we really need their engagement to really tell us what EMS means to them. Is it okay if they have a 30-minute response? I’m thinking not, but I think the public has to engage us and let us know what their expectations of EMS are.”

The task force will be hosting meetings across the state over the next few months.