Iowa counties can now recognize emergency medical services as “essential” and pay for those services through property taxes, under a bill signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds on Wednesday.

Sheila Frink, director of the Anamosa Ambulance Service, says many departments are desperate for funding. “There’s still so many rural services out there that are surviving because they’re having pancake breakfasts and raffles,” Frink says. “I mean, they spend as much time fundraising as they do taking care of patients and that’s sad.”

Unlike fire and police services, local governments in Iowa are not required to provide EMS. Under the new law, county supervisors can declare the work essential and seek approval from voters for a new property tax to support those services.

Brian Rowe, of the Anamosa Ambulance Service, says many rural services are struggling to retain staff at the same time call numbers are rising.  “We’re seeing sicker and sicker patients,” Rowe says. “Patients sometimes can’t get to a doctor, don’t have a family care provider, whatever the case may be. So they try to stick it out at home and then when they just can’t do it anymore, they call us.”

Rowe says the change is the most significant he’s seen in his 43-year career. Advocates say the shift is sorely needed, especially in rural Iowa communities, where residents often rely on a dwindling number of volunteer EMTs.

(By Kate Payne, Iowa Public Radio)