CRS financial crisis

December 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY
(Page 3 of 4)

Community Rescue Service replaced four aging ambulances in late 1998. Two were almost 10 years old and the other two had more than 90,000 miles.

The company bought two for about $100,000 each and financed the other two. The loan payments for both total $2,033 a month.

Clear Spring Ambulance Club Chief John Greenlee said his company is making due with a 1988 ambulance.

"If you don't have the money, you just can't go out and buy them," he said.

CRS officials said their aging ambulances - whose maintenance costs exceeded $40,000 a year - needed to be replaced. Company treasurer Ken R. Smith said delaying the purchases would have delayed, but not solved, the problem with operational costs.

"We'd be having this conversation a year or two from now," he said.

'Free ride'

Community Rescue Service officials said finding more volunteers to reduce the paid medics will not solve what they see as a more basic problem: lack of support from city and county officials.


CRS contends it loses money answering calls for which it cannot bill patients. These include trips to assist police and firefighters. CRS estimates it answers more than 1,500 calls a year to assist police on 911 calls and domestic disputes.

The city has purchased equipment for the company in the past. It acquired bicycles for a bike unit the company launched last year.

But unlike every other municipality in the county where an ambulance company is located, the city provides no regular financial assistance for EMS service.

"The city, other than moral support, doesn't really make a contribution," said Nye, the board vice president.

Amos said he is sympathetic to the city's tight budgets, but he said CRS needs and deserves compensation for the service it provides.

The county, too, gets off lightly considering the service it receives, Nye said. County taxpayers contribute about $40,000 a year to each of the ambulance squads plus 5 percent of their utility costs.

"Our mistake is that, years ago, we should have recognized that the county and city were getting a free ride," Nye said.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said the City Council has scheduled a meeting Tuesday to listen to the ambulance company's concerns.


Community Rescue Service's leaders said the company struggles under conditions the county's other rescue squads do not.

The ambulance squad serves a population of disproportionately poor and uninsured residents because it is responsible for most of Hagerstown's low-income neighborhoods, including the West End, downtown and the Jonathan Street area.

CRS is responsible for nine of Hagerstown's 10 public housing complexes and most of the 800 apartments whose residents receive public rental assistance from the government.

To Nye, the demographics are a double-whammy: The company finds it difficult to generate revenue both from bills for service and from contributions.

CRS, like other rescue companies, sells annual "subscriptions" to residents in its coverage area. Those who pay the fee - $35 for a family - are not billed if they use the ambulance service.

About 22 percent of the residents contribute to CRS, the lowest rate in the county; the average is about 33 percent.

CRS charges a base rate of $400 to $500 for ambulance service, depending on the severity of the call. The fees are in line with rates charged by other county companies, according to interviews with the chiefs of other rescue squads.

CRS collects only about 46 percent of the money it charges for ambulance service. In fiscal year 1998, that totaled about $663,000.

Many of the rescue company's patients have no insurance and little ability to pay the bills out of pocket. CRS collects a flat $100 reimbursement for Medicaid patients and writes off the rest.

The leaders of other EMS companies agreed Hagerstown's demographics present challenges to CRS.

But Jeff Ringer, the administrator of the Halfway Volunteer Fire Co., pointed out that his company serves the underprivileged areas of Noland Village and Halfway Manor.

Hays, the Williamsport chief, said his company does not have much more success at collecting bills than CRS does. He said its contribution rate is about 33 percent and its billing recovery rate is between 48 and 51 percent.

"Every community has senior citizens or people who are not as well off," said Grimes, the fire and rescue association president.

The county association divides $301,425 among the rescue companies, with each receiving between $41,000 and $45,000 a year, depending on their utility costs.

But Nye argued the majority of the county's urban poverty is concentrated in Community Rescue Service's territory.

"I guess what we really want is an addressing of the problem of indigent services," he said.

Turf battles

Nye said Community Rescue Service's demographics have grown worse in recent years because of changes in the boundaries.

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