Circuit judge stays out of money feud

Reese, group urged to settle spat over ambulance bills

`The only power we have'

Fire company refuses to institute $200 fee for emergency care

January 17, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A Carroll Circuit Court judge refused yesterday to order Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association to turn over county funds to the Reese fire company - money withheld because Reese has refused to institute a $200 minimum bill for ambulance service.

Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. heard three hours of arguments and testimony from county and fire officials before ruling.

He denied an injunction sought by Reese and Community Volunteer Fire Company that would have released a $12,500 quarterly payment for emergency services.

"It strikes me that the dispute between the two organizations is a dispute the courts should stay out of - and that's what I'm going to do by denying the relief sought," Burns said, suggesting the two sides try to resolve their disagreement.

Without the county allocation, the company has had to dip into its capital account for its three paid emergency-medical staff, said Jerry Dayton, Reese assistant chief, immediate past president and a member for 29 years.

Reese resisted charging patients $200 when the billing was ordered two years ago, noting liability and other concerns. The fire company recently began charging patients $5, Dayton said.

Roger N. Powell, the attorney for the Reese company, could not say whether an appeal would be filed.

Carroll County officials give the association a lump sum to be divided among the fire companies, according to testimony by County Commissioner Donald I. Dell and Steven D. Powell, director of management and budget. Twelve of the county's 14 companies receive the payment.

Dell said the commissioners first raised the idea of billing for ambulance service to receive medical insurance reimbursement for the emergency costs. But they did not require it.

Dayton and other Reese officials said billing for the service not only is contrary to the volunteer spirit, but could raise issues of liability or threaten the company's tax-exempt status.

"We have a lot of older people," Dayton testified. "They're from the old school: They feel obligated to pay these bills, but it might get so they wouldn't call an ambulance because they just paid one bill and they can't afford another bill."

Thomas E. Hickman, an attorney for the association, accused Dayton of presenting one reason after another to resist the majority decision by the association.

He and co-counsel Samantha Smith said Medicare money can be recovered by the county from the Health Care Financing Administration.

John C. Korman, association president and a member for 20 years, said each company is represented and helps to set the association's rules and bylaws.

Before the group instituted billing in 1999, he said, "Every company sent letters. ... They wanted to keep it volunteer."

Eventually all but Reese agreed, he said, and withholding the money "is the only power we have."

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