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Ambulance Co. Threatened With Suspension

 Emily Salmon
Gazette

Emmitsburg Ambulance Co. and the Frederick Board of County Commissioners are set to go head to head today over the company's new billing program.

Ambulance company officials are at odds with the board, which has threatened to shut them down if the billing activity continues.

In a Nov. 8 letter to the company's Rockville attorney, Keith R. Havens, Commission President David P. Gray (R) stated that if Emmitsburg Ambulance did not cancel the pay-per-service billing, its operations would be suspended, and Central Alarm would no longer dispatch ambulances from the company.

Last month, county officials were taken by surprise when they discovered Emmitsburg Ambulance had set up its own billing program. On Oct. 8, the company began billing insurance companies $300 for every call that required patient transport.

Gray ordered the company to stop, saying that only the Board of County Commissioners regulates fire-rescue services and has the authority to approve a billing program.

The company has refused to stop. Its interpretation of the Frederick County Code gives the county commissioners authority over fire tax districts, not billing programs.

The battle of the bills will continue today at Winchester Hall. Commissioners have asked the company to defend its actions at a work session and convince them not to shut it down.

In his letter, Gray said the board is cutting off county appropriations to the company until it complies. Michael Gastley, finance team leader of the county's finance department, said Tuesday that Emmitsburg has already received half of its $34,350 county appropriation. The remaining $17,175 was due to be paid on Oct. 24 but was withheld by order of the county attorney on Nov. 8, pending the outcome of today's work session.

Frederick County Attorney John Mathias said Wednesday that he had not heard whether a representative from Emmitsburg Ambulance would appear at today's session. However, Ann Marie Messner, public information officer the ambulance company, said Wednesday that Chief Steven King and Vice President James Eyler were expected to attend.

The timing of the billing program has rankled both county commissioners and members of the fire-rescue community because Frederick County is set to institute countywide ambulance billing next year.

Gray said he expected that Emmitsburg Ambulance calls would be billed under the countywide system, which he said would be advantageous to the company.

"You can bill all you want - collecting is the problem," Gray said Monday.

He said the county program would be widely publicized in advance, which should help bill collection.

"Nobody likes to get a bill. So Emmitsburg, I think, would maybe surprise a lot of their citizens when they start billing unannounced. So that may make collection difficult," he said.

Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association President Donald Lachman said Monday, "We're looking for a single billing system throughout the county, which we think would be much more beneficial than each company doing one itself."

King has said that Emmitsburg Ambulance would continue its billing operation despite the countywide program.

Emmitsburg Ambulance is not the first company in the county to bill for its services. In 1996, Walkersville Volunteer Ambulance Co. began a pilot insurance billing program.

Although initially a six-month study, the program continues to this day. Unlike Emmitsburg Ambulance, however, the company began the program with the authorization of county commissioners. It also offers a "rescue club" to area residents; for a small annual fee, the company waives any charges not covered by insurance.

King said last week that his company would not offer the rescue club because the record keeping "gets too confusing."

County Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson Jr. (R) said Tuesday that while he believes the commission has the legal authority to regulate the issue, he would have permitted Emmitsburg Ambulance to begin its program, with the understanding that its billing would eventually be replaced by the county's.

Thompson does not support shutting down the company over the issue.

"In my view, there is not adequate justification to discontinue EAC's operations," Thompson wrote in press release Friday. "I will not support an attempt by the BOCC to leave the Emmitsburg community devoid of ambulance service."

Thompson has been boycotting closed sessions of the commission, protesting that many of the topics should be discussed before the public. He said Emmitsburg Ambulance is among the agenda items being inappropriately reserved for the closed sessions.

Both County Commissioner Jan Gardner (D) and Lachman emphatically denied that ambulance service in Emmitsburg would be hampered by any decision of the board.

Lachman said the town could be served by the Thurmont Community Ambulance Co. or by Vigilant Hose Co., Emmitsburg's fire company. Both companies have provided ambulance service for Emmitsburg in the past.

Gardner said Wednesday that Vigilant Hose has offered to provide ambulance service in the event that Emmitsburg Ambulance is suspended.

"His assertion that anybody among the commissioners…would even consider leaving any portion of the community devoid of ambulance is totally incorrect," Gardner said.

"There would never be any consideration to leaving any portion of this county without ambulance service."

Other county commissioners deny any wrongdoing in discussing the company behind closed doors.

County Commissioner Terre Roy Rhoderick (R) said Tuesday that the meetings are those of county executives acting on input from department heads.

"Generally, what we do in there - we're not making any decisions on expenditure of county funds," Rhoderick said. "We're not making any zoning decisions, any things that need to occur in an open session."

Commissioner Richard B. Weldon Jr. (R) said Tuesday that he recalled only one closed session where the company's billing was discussed. To Weldon, the billing issue is not as important as Emmitsburg Ambulance's failure rate in July, for which the company is now under investigation by an independent committee appointed by the Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

The company failed to respond to seven of eight consecutive calls in a 33-hour period during July 20-21.

Weldon said he hoped the billing conflict could be resolved without resorting to closing down the company.

He said he would permit the billing as long as revenues were not used to pay personnel, which company representatives have said might happen in the future.

"I personally wouldn't have any problem with them continuing as long as we understood how that money's being used," Weldon said.