Montgomery County signed an agreement Monday with its volunteer firefighters that ends the group’s latest effort to challenge a recently adopted ambulance reimbursement charge.
The memorandum of understanding assuages key concerns of volunteers about the charge, primarily that no resident will have to pay out-of-pocket for an emergency medical transport, said Marcine D. Goodloe, president of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association.
Nearly two years ago, voters rejected an emergency medical services fee, but the County Council in May approved a revised plan that would bill insurers, including federal programs, an estimated $400 to $800 for ambulance rides, based on county costs.
Volunteer firefighters had been collecting signatures on petitions to put the ambulance-fee question on November’s ballot, while at the same time pursuing a compromise with the county.
The volunteer firefighters stopped collecting signatures needed to get the issue back on the ballot about two weeks ago, said Eric Bernard, executive director of the MCVFRA. Half of the 31,100 signatures required to put the measure to a vote in November would have been due Monday, according to the county Board of Elections. The group had gathered at least 11,000 signatures.
“We will not go to referendum,” Goodloe said at a news conference.
County Executive Isiah Leggett called for the emergency medical charge to help offset costs at a time of significant budget pressure on local governments. After voters rejected the fee, Leggett (D) offered a nearly identical plan, which would bring an estimated $18 million per year, arguing the county is facing state-mandated higher costs for teacher pensions and changes in school-funding rules that could burden counties.
Unlike its 2010 predecessor, the new bill swaps the term “fee” for “reimbursement,” and clarifies that residents will not pay any out-of-pocket expenses related to their transport, including deductibles, copays or coinsurance, a major argument against the fee in 2010.
It also creates a patient advocate in the Office of Consumer Protection to walk people through the process; it requires the county to conduct a public outreach and education program; it requires the fire chief to report on the program twice per year; and it prevents firefighters from seeking insurance information from those transported.
However, charges for out-of-county residents remained a concern for volunteers even after the new program passed, Goodloe said.
Although the agreement signed Monday does not prevent the county from charging non-county residents for transport, it commits both parties to working to try to establish a legal basis for not charging any person for the service. Whether that is possible remains to be seen, Leggett said.
Among its other provisions, the agreement detailed distribution of the funds collected annually under the program.
Volunteers will receive 15 percent of the collections, or about $2.7 million in the first full year. Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association will receive an additional, one-time payment of $75,000 in fiscal 2013, according to the agreement signed Monday.
Confident the issue would go to referendum, Leggett said the agreement was not an effort to buy peace with the volunteers, despite historical contentions.
“We had offered all of this last time, two years ago,” Leggett said. “I said I wanted to commit a certain amount of money to them, they are part of the system and it should be distributed accordingly. Now the difference is this time around I actually put it in the legislation, the council approved it in the legislation. What it didn't do is say what that percentage should be.”
The money may be used by local fire and rescue departments for facilties, apparatus and equipment owned by the departments, supplies, training, recruitment and retention, support and administrative personnel, according to the agreement.
What Leggett said he was trying to avoid with the agreement were lingering issues of communciation and cooperation.
“We needed to get this behind us,” he said.
Although less tangible, the agreement also builds a framework for improved relations between the 1,100 career and about 1,100 volunteer firefighters, who who make up the county’s fire and rescue service.
In the past, the relationship between the county and volunteers broke down at the managerial level, Bernard said. During the last clash about the EMS fee, that tension spread to what he called the “floor” — where career and volunteer firefighters work side-by-side.
While Bernard said staff relations now are good, Leggett said the agreement is about communication, providing notice and working together. It requires the fire chief to keep volunteers engaged and informed of fire and rescue service polices, and to create County-Volunteer Working Groups to assist in developing policies.