No doubt County Executive Chris Abele's announcement to cut $3 million from the County's Paramedic Program has raised a few eyebrows. Despite the County's ailing fiscal health, cuts to one of the more reputable Paramedic Programs in the nation may be a bit too brash for the new County Executive. County Board Supervisors appear to have a consensus about keeping the program intact, so the question is whether Abele will spend political capital on cuts to a program currently at the forefront of emergency care?
County Supervisor Mark Borkowski expressed surprise that Abele would cut the Paramedic Program. "With only six months under his belt, he's messing with one of the best things we do," Borkowski told El Conquistador. The point is well taken. USA Today ranked the Milwaukee County Paramedic Program second in the nation for cardiac resuscitation, an unlikely feat without the County's funding. It's a "well kept secret of how great we are," said Borkowski. But good secrets prove hard to keep. Just ask international delegates from China, Poland, and the Republic of Georgia who come to Milwaukee to see what makes the program tick.
County Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo agrees with his colleague, but he reminded us about Abele's campaign promises to tidy up government. The cornerstone of Abele's 2010 campaign was streamlining government by collaborating and consolidating wherever possible, said Sanfelippo in an email to El Conquistador. "So it is very bewildering to me why he would want to cut a collaborative program with a proven track record of success."
Supervisor Joe Rice joined the chorus of criticisms on Monday citing a concern about Abele's lack of dialogue with Supervisors, a problem worsening by the day as the Executive continues his hands-off brand of leadership with the Board. Rice said,
"The Milwaukee County Paramedic System plays a central role in the relationship between Milwaukee County and its nineteen municipalities. It is an example of a cooperative program of shared services and shared costs. Any debate over the shifting of costs and programs to municipal government ought to be the product of an open dialogue between governments and not be dictated. A unilateral attempt to shift costs does little to make programs more efficient or less expensive."
When we pressed Rice further about endorsing the program, he said that County support is appropriate when it's a part of a "consolidated, cost-effective delivery system." Rice added that cuts to the paramedic program may lead to more "bulkanization and duplication."
Franklin's Fire Department - a suburban department with paramedic services - would stand to lose $250,000 if the County backed away from the Paramedic Program. Franklin Fire Chief James Martins took particular exception to Abele's announcement that cuts would encourage municipalities to consolidate fire and paramedic services. "You don't get a better poster-child for consolidation," Martins spoke favorably of the program. He said local departments have been consolidating their training and resources for years.
Martins also had some concerns about losing the County's $250,000 subsidy and the impact it would have on their operating budget. "We have no place to go but personnel," Martins said anticipating potential staffing cuts if Abele's plan sees fruition.
Franklin's Fire Department isn't the only service that would shoulder the costs. According to Supervisor Borkowski, cutting $300,000 from South Milwaukee's Fire Department would represent 19% of their budget. Captain Joe Knitter of the South Milwaukee Fire Department said that money makes it possible for municipal fire departments can train at Froedert Medical College, a teaching hospital with state-of-the-art studies. Losing that funding, Knitter believes, could lead to layoffs and position losses through attrition.
David Kusulke, a South Milwaukee paramedic and paramedic instructor, added that cuts to the paramedic program would likely gut their Advanced Life Support (ALS) services as well. This means that ALS response times to Cudahy - a city reliant on South Milwaukee's paramedic expertise - would lengthen since Oak Creek paramedic units are farther away. Kusulke pointed out that in 2002 only 2% of cardiac arrests survived secondary to pre-hospital care. Today, in Milwaukee County, the survivability of cardiac arrest patients has increased to 14% thanks to the work of paramedic programs like the one in Milwaukee County.
In the campaign season of 2010, one liberal blogger led the charge to protect the paramedic program from the clutches of then County Executive Scott Walker. Although the County Executive didn't say for sure he would cut the program, it didn't stop activist blogger Chris Liebenthal from drawing up a petition bemoaning the cuts and claiming that areas in Milwaukee would go without paramedic services. Where is Liebenthal on the issue now? He has not posted single word on his blog about preserving the integrity of the program. We're not giving up hope though, there is still time for him to make his stand.
The Milwaukee County Paramedic Program - ranked #2 in the nation in cardiac arrest resuscitation - is now on Abele's chopping block. Although Abele is sounding the fiscal alarm, defunding the Paramedic Program creates somewhat of a dilemma for the County Executive. The last thing Abele needs during campaign season is a controversy. You can count on the fire community bristling to the threat and don't discount the growing bipartisan support on the County Board. This is gearing up to be a big fight. If Abele isn't careful, he may find himself embroiled in a controversy that could make his tenure short-lived.