Wednesday, July 9, 2008

County Council hears from both sides on the ambulance fee debate

Career firefighters support the plan; volunteers maintain the fee is ‘‘blood money”

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A packed room of county residents and firefighters - consisting mainly of opponents - outlined their views of a proposed ambulance transport fee to County Council members during a public hearing Tuesday night in Rockville.

‘‘The ambulance fee is an attempt by Montgomery County to secure blood money,” said John Thompson, a Kensington town council member. ‘‘To collect it just because it's there is an imposition.”

Thompson was one of about 30 speakers to come before the council during the almost three-hour hearing. In addition to the speakers, a large crowd filled the council room and satellite viewing rooms in the building.

‘‘The success of the program has consistently exceeded our expectations in revenue generation and service delivery,” testified Chief Ronald L. Mastin, chief of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Service. ‘‘It also has let us provide $10,000 a year to our volunteer firefighter units.”

Under the proposal sponsored by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), the fees would range from $300 to $800 with an additional $7.50 per mile charge for an ambulance trip. The fees would be charged to insurance companies, and county residents would not be responsible for any deductibles or co-payments, according to the proposal. Nonresidents would be responsible for any portion of the fee not paid by an insurance company.

Montgomery and Howard counties are two of the last remaining jurisdictions in the region that do not charge a transport fee.

The fee is expected to generate $14 million in the first full year of implementation, and up to $16.2 million by the fourth year, according to a revenue report prepared for the county by an emergency management system industry law firm. The money would be used to pay for fire and rescue services, with the goal of improving staffing, equipment and response times.

The county's volunteer fire departments have led the opposition to the proposal, arguing the fee would cut into their fundraising collections. Volunteers and some residents also argue that the fee could cause people needing medical assistance to hesitate before calling for an ambulance, although none of the area jurisdictions with a fee has reported a drop in service calls.

Reaction among civic associations throughout the county has been mixed.

Kim Bobola, a member of the East County Citizens Advisory Board, testified in support of the fee, calling it a ‘‘clear and straightforward way to get funding back to the community.” Just after her testimony, a member of the Silver Spring Citizens Board testified against the proposal.

Next on the agenda is a council worksession on the proposal scheduled for July 24. If the council approves the proposal, the fee would take effect Jan. 1.