Funding remains difficult for local volunteer fire companies

March 03, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU |
By Chad Trovinger/Graphic Artist

The tractor-trailer blew a back tire, apparently dragging the wheel’s metal rim on Interstate 70 and throwing up sparks for miles as the unsuspecting driver drove past Hancock and further into Washington County.

By the time he realized the problem and pulled over, the trailer was on fire. When firetrucks from Hancock Volunteer Fire Co. and two other area volunteer companies arrived, the flames were spreading rapidly that cold Monday morning last October.

Within 20 minutes, the volunteers had the fire under control, although the trailer and its cargo were in ruins and two 50-foot sections of Hancock’s water hose lay useless, severed by a flaming hunk of debris that had fallen off the truck.

The cost of the response by Maryland State Police that morning was covered by regular state tax dollars.

The cost of the response by a crew from the State Highway Administration to divert traffic also might be covered by tax money. Or, spokesman David Buck said, SHA might file a claim with the insurer for Roadco Transportation Services Inc., which owned the tractor-trailer.

D & D Truck Repair & Towing Inc., the Hagerstown firm that hauled away the wreckage, was paid, in person, by Roadco’s president, according to D&D co-owner Diane Kline.

But the $1,490 bill that Hancock Assistant Fire Chief Danny Shirley mailed to the Chicago-based Roadco a few days after the fire was never paid or acknowledged.

After some weeks, Shirley said, he reduced the bill and mailed it again, “just trying to get something back.”

Still, five months later, there has been no reply.

“I’m sure I had a phone number, but we can’t push the issue with billing because we’re a volunteer organization and so, our policy is, at that point, we just let it go,” Shirley said.

“Sad, but that’s the way it works,” Shirley said.

The way it works, multiplied by hundreds of such accidents along Washington County’s 59.45 miles of interstate highways every year, is why Greg Yost, Hancock’s fire chief last year, asked the county’s delegation of state lawmakers for help.

At Yost’s request, and with backing from the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, the delegation this year sought legislation that would have allowed the county government to set fees that volunteer companies could charge for responding to emergencies.

Yost and other local fire officers thought the fee system would finally give their volunteer companies legal footing to submit equipment and supply bills, particularly after accidents involving out-of-state motorists.

But a firestorm of criticism from insurance companies at the Feb. 16 first hearing on the proposed bill seemed to doom the legislation. The next day, local lawmakers withdrew it from consideration for this year.

“I was disappointed they pulled it so quick,” Yost said. “I understand they’ve got to pick their battles and this one was not looking so good. ... We’ll go back to the drawing board” and, maybe, try again next year.

Interstate responses

The county, reaping the economic development rewards that interstate highways bring, has three.

Interstate 81 splits the county lengthwise, running 12 miles north and south. Interstate 70 bisects the county’s middle, running east and west for 38.3 miles. And, Interstate 68 begins at I-70 west of Hancock and stretches nine miles west to the Allegany County line.

Those high-speed ribbons of roadway were the sites of 523 of the 25,679 accidents, fires and other emergencies requiring response from any of the county’s 27 volunteer fire and rescue companies from January through December of last year, according to the county Division of Emergency Services.

Of the 523 interstate highway emergencies, 136 occurred on I-81, DES said. An additional 331 were on I-70 and 56 were on I-68, according to DES.

The cost of the companies’ response to those emergencies isn’t known.

But of the 27 volunteer companies, success in billing comes most often to the eight Emergency Medical Services companies. Bolstered by rules in the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, the EMS companies can bill insurers and/or individuals pretty much any time an ambulance carries a patient to the hospital.

Whether an EMS company will be reimbursed and, if so, how much, are questions on every call.

For example, Hagerstown-based Community Rescue Service, the county’s largest EMS company, ran on 12,970 calls during 2011, according to DES figures.

“We get paid for a little bit over half of what we bill,” said Terry Trovinger, chief financial officer of the EMS company. “Insurance companies pay according to their rules and what Medicaid and Medicare would pay.”

Helping CRS and the other EMS companies is a law that Maryland passed last year, requiring health insurers to pay any ambulance bills their policies cover — directly to the ambulance company.

Before the law took effect last month, “the insurance company was cutting the (benefits) check to the person who had the policy and who was, 90 percent of the time, pocketing the check,” said Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, who sponsored the legislation.

“The rescue squad, the volunteers, they were out. You saved this person’s life and you bill their insurance company, and 90 percent of the time, they’re pocketing the check. That’s a hell of a lot of money, which isn’t going to the volunteer companies,” Kelly said.

Withdrawing the bill

The legislation that Yost requested was designed to help both the local volunteer fire and the EMS companies.

As written, the measure would have provided for reimbursement of their costs not just for responses to interstate accidents, but for fire or rescue emergencies throughout the county.

A state Department of Legislative Services analysis of the legislation 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.”

In addition, 19 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.

Nonetheless, the proposal was met with skepticism from some lawmakers and it drew fire from insurance company officials, who claimed it was too broad and was like a tax.

The response prompted local lawmakers, including delegation chairman Andrew A. Serafini, to reconsider.

Having just passed Kelly’s EMS reimbursement legislation last year, Serafini said, some lawmakers were hesitant of doing more so soon.

“While they’re somewhat empathetic” to volunteer companies in a county with so many interstate highways, “I’m not sure the bill is going to go,” Serafini, R-Washington, said hours before deciding to withdraw it.

The delegation’s proposal in the House of Delegates was withdrawn, as was a similar bill sponsored by Western Maryland senators Christopher B. Shank, George C. Edwards and Ronald N. Young in the Senate.

Win some, lose some

Billing is an uphill effort for the fire companies here that do try.

Hancock’s fire company has been sending out bills on and off for about 15 years, former chief Yost said.

“We usually only bill interstate calls that are not local people. They’re people who don’t donate” or pay taxes locally, so it’s fair to bill them, Yost said.

And, over the years, the fire company has sent bills in Hancock or outside town “for some people, like if there’s a house or chimney fire and if people say, ‘Send it to our insurance company.’ But if people have donated to us (in the annual fund drive), we’re not likely to bill,” he said.

Recent bills have been for as little as $46.50 for a firetruck helping at an emergency scene on I-68.

“I don’t know whether we got paid for that or not,” Yost said.

The fire company did get paid last fall after a tractor-trailer driver who was hauling hogs took a wrong turn off an interstate, tried to turn around and ripped out some utility poles, one of which rammed his truck, killing some hogs, Yost said. Hancock firefighters worked with police late into the night, corralling hogs.

“That bill turned out to total $1,330. It was paid in full by that insurance company,” he said.

Often, it’s just a waiting game after the bill’s been sent.

“We mail the bill out and it’s forgot about. Sometimes, a check comes in and sometimes, it doesn’t,” he said.

A way to raise money

The idea of having the county government set fees that volunteer companies could charge for services was “a way to raise the funds that would reimburse some money that was being spent,” Yost said.

“Something like this could help us bring in the money we need to hire daytime drivers. ... Or, even it could be what postpones the day when the county needs to impose a fire tax,” he said.

But with the fee-setting legislation now withdrawn, Yost said he plans to work with others in the volunteer services this coming year to try to focus more on a new proposal and maybe draw enough support to make it a statewide measure.

Kelly said winning legislative passage would be difficult, but notes a compelling argument.

When a volunteer fire company goes to cut a motorist out of a wrecked car and an EMS company responds to the same accident, the reality is that as it stands now, one might be reimbursed and the other won’t, Kelly said.

“The paramedics side of this will probably receive a reimbursement, (but) the cutting you out is not going to receive a reimbursement,” he said.

“... We do know once those EMS people load you in and take you to the hospital, they’re going to get paid.”

Offer of help

Returning to the example of that tractor-trailer fire east of Hancock last fall, what did the trucking company have to say about the bills sent to its Chicago headquarters by the fire company?

Contacted by The Herald-Mail, Roadco President Bob Adelman said he doesn’t know what became of the bills, but he offered to try to help.

Normally, Adelman said, his staff sends such bills to its insurance company.

“I just try to send it in to the insurance company, let them worry about it. That’s why I have insurance,” he said.

Adelman, whose company began in 1979 and now owns 50 trucks and 250 trailers, said he is grateful to the volunteer companies for their help last fall.

“Luckily, nobody got hurt,” he said. “So, if they (Hancock) send me a copy of it, I’d be happy to forward it to the (insurance) company.” 

Told of Adelman’s offer, Yost said the fire company probably would try again, but he wasn’t optimistic of success.

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