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Lawmakers consider allowing charges for volunteer fire, rescue services

February 01, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

Washington County’s state lawmakers are considering a proposal to allow local volunteer fire departments and rescue companies to bill for their services.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the idea was suggested by the Hancock Volunteer Fire Co., which handles a lot of calls for vehicle crashes on interstate highways, often assisting people from outside the community.

The topic came up Wednesday during the county legislative delegation’s weekly meeting in Annapolis.
Dale Hill, the president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said the group supports the concept of a bill, if it includes both fire and rescue companies.

Shank said he wasn’t sure if rescue squads needed to be included in a new bill, because they already can bill health insurers for services they provide.

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Shank predicted that people in the insurance industry would object to a bill authorizing billing for services.

The Funkstown Volunteer Fire Co. has a subscription service, in which residents and businesses pay a fee each year to cover the company’s costs.

The company sends bills to nonsubscribers, who turn those bills over to their insurance company. It’s a voluntary system, though; some insurers pay the bill and some don’t, said Hill, who is  president of the company.

Those voluntary bills are “statements of services,” according to a footnote on a letter from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, responding to Shank’s request for feedback about billing.

The letter, from Assistant Attorney General Bonnie A. Kirkland, said Washington County, with a commission form of government, would need enabling legislation in the General Assembly to start a fee system.

With a fee structure, volunteer fire and rescue companies should be able to maintain their civil immunity under the law by billing a responsible third party, namely an insurance carrier, instead of the person receiving the services, Kirkland wrote.

Hill said during Wednesday’s meeting that in 2010-11, Mount Aetna Volunteer Fire Department had 176 calls on the interstate.

Later, Hill said several fire and rescue companies are in the same position, because of their proximity to interstates, including Mount Aetna, Funkstown, Clear Spring, Hancock, Williamsport, Halfway and Maugansville.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, R-Washington, wondered if enabling legislation allowing billing would be limited to calls on interstate highways.

Shank said it wouldn’t have to be. Although the number of interstate calls might be a reason to consider allowing fire companies to bill for service, there’s no reason they couldn’t bill for local calls, too, he said.

It would be up to the Washington County Board of Commissioners to decide the scope of billing if they were to approve a fee system, Shank said.

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