Santabarbara: Pandemic further strains rural ambulance services

Angelo Santabarbara - File

Angelo Santabarbara - File

The COVID-19 pandemic has put further strain on rural ambulance corps and shown the need for the state to address their financial and manpower problems, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara said on Saturday.

With the 2021 legislative session just getting underway, he said he will resume his push for legislation he introduced last year to establish a task force that will look at how to support ambulance services.

“There really is very little support historically for rural ambulance services,” said Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who has been re-appointed Assembly Chairman of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. “What the legislation speaks to is that there needs to be more research and effort to find more long term solutions. There needs to be a long term solution to stabilize these services.”

The assemblyman introduced legislation calling for a task force study in 2020, after two emergency medical corps in Fulton County went out of business due primarily to their financial struggles.

He said he was building support for his bill when the pandemic struck last March, for all practical purposes ending the legislative session, except for some remote conferences and hearings.

“I think it was going to be successful, but it got derailed because of the chaos of COVID-19,” Santabarbara said.

COVID-19 — which has spread even into rural upstate communities — has put new pressure on emergency responders. Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo included ambulance workers in the first round of vaccination recipients only after a push from legislators, including Santabarbara, and the ambulance industry.

“Our members operate on the frontline of healthcare, routinely traveling between uncontrolled environments, and face constant risks of exposure to the novel coronavirus,” said Tom Coyle, president of the United New York Ambulance Network, which represents private ambulance companies.

The Regional Emergency Medical Organization, which coordinates emergency services in a six-county area including Saratoga, Schenectady, Albany, Rensselaer, Greene and Columbia counties, says the region generates about 200,000 emergency medical calls per year.

“When you look at rural health care, you have to look at the ambulances services first,” Santabarbara said. “They are stretched very thin right now.”

Because of thin staffing levels, Santabarbara said he is also introducing legislation to exempt emergency medical personnel and firefighters from jury duty for the length of the pandemic.

Other rural issues Santabarbara hopes to work on this year include gaps in cellphone coverage, improved access to broadband internet service, and support for agriculture and other parts of the rural economy.

“From agriculture to tourism, our rural communities have enabled our state to thrive,” he said. “Despite the inequities they face, our rural communities have provided us with a safe and affordable food supply through these difficult times. As we work to rebuild our economy they will be an invaluable asset, providing the natural resources we all depend on not only for food, but also energy, water, and recreation.”

Santabarbara’s 111th Assembly District includes Montgomery County and mostly rural parts of Schenectady and Albany counties.

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