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Bill to allow fees for fire response gets chilly reception

Nineteen of Maryland's 24 local jurisdictions already charge ambulance transport fees

February 16, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS — A bill that would allow Washington County’s volunteer fire and rescue companies to bill for services ran into resistance Thursday from representatives of insurance companies.

Some members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee also expressed skepticism when Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, presented the bill, even though it would apply only to Washington County.

During an interview Thursday night, Serafini, the Washington County delegation chairman, said he didn’t think the committee would approve the bill.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.

“We offered it (the legislation) as a good service, but evidently, there’s a lot of opposition.... They (opponents) don’t care it’s a local bill because it’s going to create a precedent,” Serafini said.

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The Washington County delegation and Sen. Christopher B. Shank filed almost identical bills after learning that volunteer companies need a way to recoup costs, particularly for calls on interstate highways.

The bill would authorize the Washington County Board of Commissioners to establish a system for volunteer fire departments and rescue squads to charge fees. Professional departments, such as the city of Hagerstown’s, would not be included.

Volunteer companies would send bills to insurers “for equipment, personnel, or consumable products” used during a fire or rescue call.

A Department of Legislative Services analysis of the bill noted that  “Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurers already cover the cost of ambulance transports under current plans and premiums, so insurance rates would not rise as a result.”

Nineteen of Maryland’s 24 local jurisdictions already charge ambulance transport fees, so “insurance companies that do business in Maryland are already accustomed to them,” the analysis said.

But Deborah R. Rivkin, the vice president of government affairs for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, told the committee that the new proposal is much broader.

“This bill goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I look at this as a mandated benefit.”

Lawrence A. Richardson Jr., who handles legislative affairs in the region for State Farm, agreed, noting that the bill refers to any kind of emergency response.

Richardson said the charge becomes a tax because “this is not a competitive service.”

He told the committee about a case in which a fire company sent a notice to a woman, asking her to pay several thousand dollars for its response to a fire. The woman was not obligated to pay, but worried what might happen next time if she didn’t pay this time, he said.

Other insurance representatives also urged the committee to vote against the bill, calling it a “dramatic” and “groundbreaking” change.

Many fire department and EMS providers across the country have begun charging fees in recent years to offset costs, according to the analysis of the bill.

For ambulance calls, charges can range from $350 for a basic life support transport to $600 for advanced life support, the analysis said.

A charge may be imposed for mileage.

The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service has said it supported the bill, as long as it included both fire and rescue companies.

Volunteers struggle under the weight of having to raise money through bingo games and selling ham sandwiches, Glenn Fishack, the association’s past president, told the committee.

Staff Writer Arnold Platou contributed to this story.

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