Calif. city suspends first responder fee billing after confusion, complaints

The billing of fees issued to insurance companies for medical care rendered by Vallejo firefighters was suspended until further notice after patients mistook fee notices for bills


Thomas Gase
Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.

VALLEJO, Calif. — After some turmoil and confusion the last month, Vallejo announced that its first responder fee billing and notices would be suspended until further notice, a news release with the city stated late Thursday afternoon.

After the statement was sent out, the Vallejo Firefighters Association released its own statement at about noon on Friday. The union's statement says that the original news release by the city accurately states that the new fee notices were improperly worded, causing them to appear as bills owed directly by our citizens, rather than notices of intent to bill a patient’s health insurance provider.

“While we thank the department for aiming to provide clarity, we remain greatly concerned with the path that lead us to this point,” the union statement reads. “The Vallejo Firefighters Association Board repeatedly asked Fire Chief Daryl Arbuthnott for transparency and inclusion on the First Responder Fee plan dating back to August of 2019. Now, the Fire Chief aims to deflect blame to the billing agency (Wittman Enterprises), through claims that they chose improper terminology. Frankly, the blame remains with the Fire Chief, for if he had answered the concerns of his employees even once, the confusing and improper billing language would have been sorted out long ago.

“When we look to the city of Benicia, we see that their fee notices include bold lettering which states: “THIS IS NOT A BILL,” the statement continues. “Meanwhile, the ‘confusing’ language chosen for Vallejo’s fee notice states: ‘You are responsible for the above amount.’ The Vallejo Firefighters Association does not see this as ‘confusing’, but rather as deceit based out of willful neglect from the Fire Chief.”

The union continues the statement by saying they “have been adamant since day one that our citizens must face zero financial hardship or direct obligation to pay a new fee. This priority was ignored by the Fire Chief, leading to undue angst and frustration for many of our hardworking citizens. We believe that this fee debacle has not yet met resolve.”

In May of 2017, the Vallejo City Council approved a First Responder Fee. This fee was implemented as a way to recapture costs incurred through EMS services and care provided to anyone in Vallejo.

“In August 2020, the city rolled-out the billing for first responder services rendered. It was immediately brought to the city’s attention that the courtesy notices sent to patients were confusing,” a news release by the city of Vallejo stated. “Due to the lack of proper terminology, the notices were interpreted as a “bill” rather than a notice of intent to bill the patient’s insurance carrier. Due to this confusion the City has temporarily paused all billing and courtesy notices, effective September 15.

“Fire Administration staff have worked with the billing company (Wittman) to design a new insurance request letter that will be sent to all patients who receive medical care from Vallejo firefighters,” the press release continues. “These letters will request the insurance information for the patient who was provided care.”

The patients’ health insurance provider will be billed for services rendered to the patient,” Vallejo’s press release goes on to say. It also states that patients are not responsible for paying any portion of the First Responder Fee and patients who do not have insurance must respond to the billing agency informing them that they do not have health insurance.

“Refunds or stop payments will be provided to all citizens who paid their invoice individually,” the statement says. “We expect refunds and stop payments to be completed within the next several weeks. There is no need for those individuals to fill out any documentation or provide any further information in order to receive the refund.”

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©2020 Times-Herald (Vallejo, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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