Reese is the lone holdout on ambulance service fees

Fire company is told to bill clients or lose $50,000 from county

January 09, 2000|By John Murphy and Ellie Baublitz | John Murphy and Ellie Baublitz,SUN STAFF

Since its founding in 1948, the Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Company has helped pay for its battles to extinguish fires and save lives through ham and oyster suppers, bingo games, Christmas tree sales and a six-day carnival generating thousands of dollars each year.

But a proposal to start billing customers for ambulance service threatens to upset this fund-raising equation and create a rift between Carroll County's volunteer fire companies.

Like other communities across the country facing growing populations and dwindling numbers of volunteers, Carroll County is asking all its fire companies to charge fees for ambulance calls. The fees -- paid by medical insurers in most cases -- would cover the costs of the companies' hired emergency medical technicians, officials say.

All the county's volunteer fire companies have agreed to go along with the plan except one: Reese. Now the rebel company might face serious consequences.

Members of the county's volunteer firemen's association gave Reese an ultimatum last week: Start billing or lose $50,000 in county ambulance support.

Such a sanction is rare in the tightknit community of volunteer firefighters, whose dances, bingo games and carnivals form the social backbone of many neighborhoods in the county. But fire association members say discipline is necessary to maintain order within their organization.

The $50,000 sanction would represent a more than 20 percent reduction in the money the company receives from the county. Still, members of the Reese company stand firm, arguing that the proposal violates the bond they have built with their community for more than 50 years.

"To me, volunteering means you do something without being compensated for it. Once you start charging, you are taking away from the volunteerism," said Jerry Dayton, president of the Reese company, which has generated more than $80,000 a year recently through its carnival.

"We generate enough money through our events," Dayton said. "We feel we don't have to bill the public. Apparently the county thinks we should. They are trying to force this on us."

In 1998, the county commissioners started putting pressure on the fire departments to bill insurance companies for ambulance service. At the county fire association convention later that year, a majority of fire companies, some reluctantly, bowed to the county's wishes.

"All the departments would like to be one as a county. You can't have renegade companies," said Susan Mott, chairwoman of the ambulance billing committee. "To keep the kind of trained personnel we have, it does cost a tremendous amount of money None of us really want to bill. But in order to put quality care out there, it is important that we seek alternative revenue to do so."

For many companies, the billing issue comes down to money and staffing. Volunteers are not as readily available during the weekdays to answer calls as they were many years ago.

All stations except Harney and New Windsor have hired paid emergency medical services personnel to staff their ambulances during the work week. The companies in Sykesville, Westminster, Taneytown and Manchester have paid personnel 24 hours a day.

The county pays 90 percent of each company's operating costs. But every station holds fund-raisers to make up the difference, as well as to raise money for equipment such as fire engines and ambulances.

Most ambulance calls, which cost several hundred dollars each depending on the company, would be covered by medical insurance. If not, payment by the patient would be strictly voluntary.

"We are not out there to chase people down," Mott said.

Reese members say that if they need the additional funding someday, they would not object to billing along with the other companies. For now, such a change would be unnecessary, they say.

"We are not trying to start any problems. It's not an issue of making other companies look bad or making us look better. The majority of the company doesn't want to bill. We are very, very fortunate that we have the money we get," said Jesse Barnes, captain of the Reese ambulance squad. "Our community supports us unbelievably well."

To start billing on top of all the fund-raising support would be "double dipping," he said.

Other members fear the Internal Revenue Service would find that collecting fees violated rules governing tax exemptions. Reese wants an official ruling from the IRS, which would cost $2,500, promising that their nonprofit status would not change.

Another concern is that billing could expose the company to more liability. Under the state's "good Samaritan" law, volunteer agencies are protected from many lawsuits. Dayton said that protection could weaken if the company begins charging for its services.

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