2009-09-16 / Front Page

County considers squad transport fees

By Richard Foster


Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer
Rose Wilson and Bruce Wilson from the Ettrick Matoaca Volunteer Rescue Squad put a patient in an ambulance.
Ettrick Matoaca Volunteer Rescue Squad chalks up its very survival to charging a fee for emergency ambulance transportation.

"If it had not been for that, our doors would be closed," says Rose Wilson, the squad's chief of operations. "We wouldn't have had the money to function [because] donations were down." And thanks to that transport-fee revenue, the squad recently purchased two new ambulances and "a lot of updated equipment," she adds.

At present, Ettrick Matoaca Volunteer Rescue is the only one of Chesterfield County's four volunteer rescue squads to charge such a fee. The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors is holding a public hearing on Sept. 23 to discuss granting authority to the other three volunteer rescue squads (Bensley-Bermuda, Forest View and Manchester) to levy ambulance transport fees if they wish to do so.

Wilson, for one, says that the transport fee would be "a great advantage to the other [volunteer] squads" in the county.

Becky Robinette Wright/Chesterfield Observer Forest View Volunteer Rescue Squad responds to a two-vehicle crash on Robious Road last June. Forest View has reportedly asked the county to allow the squad to begin charging a fee for transporting patients to the hospital.
Many residents probably wouldn't notice a difference. At present, calls for emergency ambulance transportation in Chesterfield are split between the county's 466 paid professional fire/emergency workers and about 150 volunteers.

The county charges an emergency ambulance transportation fee for any call answered by one of its professional fire/emergency employees, says Mike Harmon, EMS director for the Chesterfield County Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. County fire/EMS professionals generally answer the majority of emergency daytime calls and supplement the volunteer squads as needed on nights and weekends.

In general, a patient's insurance will pay for most, if not all, of the emergency transport fee, Harmon says. Additionally, the county offers the EMS Passport program, which allows citizens to pay a $59 subscription fee in order to waive any out-of-pocket expenses, including insurance co-pays and deductibles, when they receive emergency ambulance transportation.

The present motion came to the board of supervisors after a request by Forest View Volunteer Rescue Squad, Harmon says. Forest View's operations chief, Walter Stephens, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only that his squad has not yet made a decision to charge for ambulance transport. Nevertheless, others in the county's volunteer rescue and EMS community say that Forest View has expressed interest in charging transport fees due to declining donations during the recent economic downturn.

Some might anticipate that charging a fee for volunteer ambulance transport could anger elderly county residents and others with medical needs that might necessitate regular ambulance transportation. But Ettrick Matoaca's Wilson says that between the county's Passport program and insurance coverage, her squad hasn't heard any complaints about the policy since instituting it in 2002. "If [the patient] carried insurance of some sort, the insurance paid some or all of the transport [fee]," Wilson says. "It has never been a question for people of 'I'm not calling the ambulance because we might have to pay.' We had one [citizen express] concern when it initially started, but within 30 days, everybody started realizing their insurance was going to pay for it."

Wilson praises county staff for holding community meetings to explain the fees and to make it clear that no one would be saddled with unreasonable bills for emergency medical transport.

Even so, at least one of the county's other volunteer squads still hopes not to institute ambulance transport fees for volunteer calls.

Manchester Volunteer Rescue Squad president Kathy Eubank says her squad has discussed the issue of instituting transport fees and "at this point, it is not the wish of our organization nor at this point is it something we have to do financially."

Still, Manchester Volunteer Rescue is glad to have the option available in case it should ever become necessary. "As long as the community supports us financially, we're OK," Eubank says, "but if that financial support were to drop off, then we really would not have an option because we have bills to pay, and we run two [stations], and we have a fleet of about 10 vehicles altogether, plus all of the equipment and all of the things we have to replace on a daily basis." (Some disposable medical items required for a typical emergency ambulance call can cost as much as $100 to $200 apiece.)

"Medical-supply costs are not going down, and we have to be able to remain financially sound. We've been very fortunate that our citizens have allowed us to do that up to this point," Eubank says. "Our spring fund drive did well, and so we were very happy about that, but I can't speculate what the fall one may do."

Even though Manchester Volunteer Rescue doesn't charge for ambulance transportation by its volunteers, the squad still "highly encourages" the citizens in its service area to take advantage of the county's Passport program because of the simple fact that the county's career EMS officers answer calls in Manchester during the daytime hours and when the volunteers are too busy with other calls.

"With most emergency events, it's either dry as a bone or we're running every which way. You're either busy, or you're doing nothing. Feast or famine, you know?" says Eubank. If her volunteers are overwhelmed with other calls, a crew of the county's professional fire/EMS workers steps in to handle transport. And when that happens, "Our constituents would more than likely receive a bill, and unfortunately I can't control that," Eubank says. "If our crews are tied up, they're tied up."

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