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Ambulance Co. Agrees to Cease Billing
Emily Salmon

After a lengthy work session with the Board of County Commissioners last Thursday, members of the Emmitsburg Ambulance Co. agreed to cease billing customers for ambulance transport.

In return, the commissioners will release $17,175 in appropriations that they had withheld after learning of the company's billing program.

On Oct. 8, Emmitsburg Ambulance began billing insurance companies $300 for each call requiring patient transport.

Commission President David P. Gray (R) responded by withholding funds and threatening to suspend the company's operations if it did not cancel its billing program.

Gray said that, by law, the county commissioners regulate fire and rescue services, requiring their permission for the company 's billing program. He also expressed concerns that the billing would interfere with plans to begin countywide ambulance billing in July 2002.

At the work session, representatives of Emmitsburg Ambulance justified the billing, citing an April 29 letter from Charles Abrecht, then president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

They felt that the letter, written to the president of the Vigilant Hose Co. in Emmitsburg, threatened the ambulance company with a 90 percent drop in county appropriations in fiscal year 2003.

Abrecht's letter stated that the association's budget task force recommended that, in the future, all expenditures be funded by the fire tax districts. Currently, capital expenses - equipment, paid personnel salaries and station improvements - come from the fire tax districts, while operational expenses come from the county's general fund.

The recommendation of the task force would have to be included in the county's legislative packet to the state delegates and approved by the General Assembly before going into effect.

If passed, the letter stated, Emmitsburg fire and rescue companies would then only be eligible for the minimum county funding - $6,000 for the ambulance company and $15,000 for the fire company - since the town successfully opted out of tax district inclusion earlier this year.

Keith R. Havens, the attorney for Emmitsburg Ambulance, said the company had started the billing in advance of any legislative decisions to make sure there were "no kinks" in the program.

The county commissioners denied they had any plans to submit the task force's request to the county's General Assembly delegates.

Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R) said, that while the $6,000 funding could happen in theory, he did not see it happening in the near future.

Commissioner Jan Gardner (D) concurred, adding that she had not seen Abrecht's letter prior to the work session.

Emmitsburg Mayor William H. Carr's main concern was that the ambulance company survive until countywide billing begins.

"I can't believe that Emmitsburg Ambulance wanted to dissociate from the rest of the ambulance companies," Carr said. He said the company had been "frightened" by the threat of a 90 percent drop in revenue.

Commissioner Terre Roy Rhoderick (R) repeatedly asked the company why, since the letter was issued in April, the company did not broach its program with the commissioners earlier.

Gardner added, "The first time I knew when you were billing was when I read it in the paper."

Havens responded that the letter was addressed to the Vigilant Hose Co., not Emmitsburg Ambulance. "They didn't get it until much later," Havens said. "We don't have an exact date."

Both sides agreed that communication between the commissioners, the association and company officials needed improvement. Emmitsburg Ambulance representatives said that mail from the association is sometimes sent to an officer's home address. Since the company had recently changed administrations, the current officers may have never received some association correspondence.

Emmitsburg Ambulance President Joseph Pelkey said his company had been notified of association meetings with only a day's notice, or sometimes after the meeting.

Donald Lachman, president of the fire and rescue association, said the group has met on the third Thursday of every other month for about 37 years.

"There really is very little excuse for not knowing of our meeting dates," Lachman said.

Thompson moved to rescind Gray's letter, saying he disagreed with the county's interference because "we may never implement county insurance billing."

"It's none of the county's business whether a private company chooses to charge for a service," he said.

The motion failed 1-3. Rhoderick (R) left the meeting before the vote.

While Commissioner Richard B. Weldon Jr. (R) said he was uncomfortable with the concept of "brinksmanship," he said, like the other commissioners, that it was not his intent to carry through with the recommendation in Abrecht's letter.

After Havens agreed that the company would stop billing and notify both the association and commissioners before resuming, commissioners voted 4-0 to release the appropriation.

After the meeting, Pelkey implied that there was more to the billing dispute than was discussed before the commissioners.

"There's other issues that we haven't brought up," he said, declining to reveal when the issues would come to the fore.

Pelkey also said that the company has been listed as getting copies on letters that it had never received and that some meeting dates had been changed without notification.

When asked which association meetings the company did not know about, Emmitsburg Ambulance Chief Steven King replied, "Some of them we did; some of them we didn't. It's a big blur."

In an interview Monday, Pelkey said his company heard about some of the association's meetings through word of mouth. He said the company had not even received the Nov. 8 letter from Gray.

"That's why we're talking about lack of communication," Pelkey said. "To us, that's an important issue."

Pelkey emphasized the company was only ceasing the billing at this time - not canceling the program permanently.

He also reiterated the concerns voiced at the work session about the Walkersville Volunteer Ambulance Co., which has had a pilot billing program, originally intended to last six months, in place since 1996.