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Ambulance Co. Chief Defends Billing Users

 Emily Salmon
Gazette

Emmitsburg Ambulance Co. Chief Steven King took the floor at the Emmitsburg town meeting Monday night to defend the company's decision to begin a fee-per-service billing program.

He said that since Oct. 8, the company has been billing insurance companies $300 for each call requiring ambulance transport. The money would go toward supplies, fuel and other equipment costs.

King said the company would continue the billing program, despite receiving an Oct. 18 letter from Frederick County Board of Commissioners President David Gray (R) telling it to stop. In the letter, Gray cited Section 2-8-6 of the Frederick County Code, which states that the commissioners shall regulate "all fire and rescue services in the county and the municipal corporations of the county."

King said the company disputes the county's interpretation of county law, saying it gives the commissioners authority over fire-rescue tax districts, not billing programs.

Frank Davis, chief of the Vigilant Hose Co. in Emmitsburg, asked King why the company did not wait until countywide ambulance billing was implemented next year.

"Frederick County has been talking about billing now for over a year," King replied. He said that even if an anticipated countywide pay-per-transport system goes into effect next year, the company would continue its billing.

Unlike Emmitsburg, King contended, most of the county would be "double-dipped" under the countywide program, paying both the fire-rescue tax and the ambulance fees.

He said that Emmitsburg Ambulance started its program as the result of an April 29 letter from then-president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association (FCVFRA) Charles E. Abrecht. In the letter, King said, the company was told that its operating budget would plummet from $56,000 to $6,000 in fiscal year 2003 because of Emmitsburg's exemption from the two-tiered county fire-rescue tax system enacted in April 2001.

"There's no way can operate if this happens," King told the Emmitsburg Town Council.

In fact, the letter stated that the FCVFRA's task force was recommending to county commissioners that they request in the legislative packet to the Maryland General Assembly that both operational and capital expenses be funded by the tax districts. Currently, only capital expenses are funded by the tax districts; operational expenses come out of the county's general fund.

Abrecht stated that the request would require state legislative approval. If passed, Emmitsburg Ambulance would then qualify only for the minimum county funding of $6,000 for an ambulance company.

The dispute over billing is the most recent in a series of conflicts that have thrust the company into the limelight over recent months.

Emmitsburg Ambulance missed 10 of 11 calls during the July 20-21 period, causing a backlash among neighboring fire-rescue companies, who said it was not the first time they had provided service to cover for the company's lapses.

In August, the FCVFRA formed an independent committee to evaluate the company's operations and make recommendations.

The following month, the president of Emmitsburg Ambulance was ousted by the company, and the chief resigned.

Emmitsburg Ambulance Public Information Officer Ann M. Messner said Wednesday that it is possible that billing revenue could be used to pay ambulance personnel at some future point.

"Although at this time there is no apparent need for career personnel," Messner said, "it is a possibility in the future, due to increased call volume caused by development in the area." Part of the funds generated from billing would be set aside for paid personnel if necessary, she said.

Emmitsburg Ambulance is the only remaining all-volunteer ambulance company in Frederick County.

Davis, who said he was speaking as an Emmitsburg resident and not representing Vigilant Hose, told King, "I think this whole situation is nothing but a slap in the face to this community." Calling it "bad business," he said the decision was widening the alienation that volunteer fire-rescue personnel are feeling from the BOCC and the rest of the fire-rescue community.

"We have to stay together," Davis said.

"The direction you all are taking, you are sure not making any friends…" he said. "f you want to survive here in Emmitsburg, you need the support of the community."