Fire unit balks at charging $200 fee

Reese says it will resist county's billing demand for ambulance service

`Hounding us to begin'

June 06, 2000|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Members of the Reese volunteer fire company have vowed to resist any demand from the county firefighters association to force them to charge a minimum $200 fee for ambulance service.

Jerry Dayton, president of the Reese and Community Volunteer Fire Company, said his company will go to court if necessary if the association withholds its county funding for ambulance service.

Tempers flared at the monthly association meeting last night after Dayton said, "You have been strong-arming us and hounding us to begin billing. When we finally gave in and began charging $5 for each call, it wasn't enough."

The Reese fire company had opposed billing since last year when Carroll County volunteer fire companies began charging patients' insurance companies for ambulance services. The Reese firefighters feared charging fees would risk a loss of federal tax-exempt status and therefore jeopardize the department's protection under the state's Good Samaritan Law if something went wrong, according to Roger N. Powell, an attorney and member of the Reese company.

"We believe a uniformly designed bill with boxes to check off the amount billed according to the level of service provided would be in the best interests of all companies in Carroll County," Powell said yesterday.

That billing form, sent out by the county, would not name the company that provided the service and therefore would remove each company from exposure to possible lawsuits, Powell said.

"I'd be happy to draft [the billing form]," Powell said. "I recommend a four-copy form, with one copy each going to the patient, the hospital, the firemen's association and the fire company that provided the service," he said.

Following orders from the Carroll commissioners, 12 of the 14 firefighters association's members - Harney does not have an ambulance - began billing in 1999. The companies charged the same amount, and most used the same third-party billing company. Reese, with its firehouse about halfway between Finksburg and Westminster on Route 140, was the only company unwilling to comply. Finally, under pressure from the association, Reese began charging a $5 fee this year for each service call.

Other companies were billing $200 to $700.

Last month, the association ordered all companies to begin charging a minimum of $200 for each call, or risk having their $50,000 allotment from the county for ambulance services withheld by the association.

All companies were given until yesterday to comply. Reese and Gamber's fire company had not complied as of last night.

The tax-exempt status was addressed by the county commissioners in May, after Reese had asked the county for a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service.

Tax-exempt status would not be in jeopardy, according to the IRS response, unless a fire company refused service for nonpayment of a prior bill, the commissioners said.

Reese sought the ruling as a guarantee against changes in interpreting the federal tax code, fearing any such changes could leave it vulnerable to pay hefty penalties.

Fear of litigation fueled Reese's proposal.

According to Powell, a Baltimore case involving the Good Samaritan issue is under review in the state's Court of Special Appeals.

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