Va. town looks at billing residents for rescue calls

Estimates based on last year's calls indicate that billing insurance companies would bring an additional $356,000 into the county coffers

The Free Lance-Star

CULPEPER, Va. — Culpeper Fire and Rescue Association President Anthony Clatterbuck told the Board of Supervisors on Saturday that his volunteer members have begrudgingly agreed to consider endorsing “soft billing” for rescue calls.

Clatterbuck said that estimates based on last year’s calls indicate that billing insurance companies would bring an additional $356,000 into the county coffers.

That amount, combined with the $50,000 the county’s nine companies already get from an 8-cent fire and rescue tax levy, would come close to providing the additional capital funds volunteer stations need annually, Clatterbuck told those who attended a four-hour fire and rescue summit.

“Each company needs $100,000 a year, not $50,000,” Clatterbuck said. (The county already reimburses operation expenses.)

But when asked point-blank by Supervisor Jack Frazier whether or not the volunteer companies were actually in favor of charging for emergency transportation, Clatterbuck replied, “Absolutely not! We’re against it! But that’s what we’re willing to swallow.”

The county’s paid rescue department has been soft billing patients for several years, and last year that program produced about $600,000 in revenue.

Soft billing means that patients are asked to pay for services but are not required to unless their insurance covers medical transports.

The volunteer companies, however, have heretofore steadfastly refused to move into soft billing for two reasons: the potential loss of donations and the paperwork involved.

Doug Monaco, chief of the Little Fork Fire and Rescue Company, was adamant about his organization’s thoughts on the latter.

“We’re not going to handle the paperwork unless the county guarantees us $100,000 [in capital-improvement money] a year,” Monaco said.

Earlier Monaco told the group that his volunteer company badly needed a new firehouse and was looking into building a $3.3 million facility. He said Little Fork, which also needs a new truck, would require almost $5 million in the next two years. He added that those capital needs were projected to require a debt service of $24,900 per month.

While the prospect of debt was worrying Little Fork, the problem of no debt was prompting the Reva Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company to contemplate borrowing money to make renovations.

Officials from Reva said that being debt-free and having money in the bank was hindering that company’s ability to secure state and federal grant money, which is key to running a volunteer company.

Volunteers also complained that donations were getting harder to come by now that the county has implemented its fire and rescue levy on real estate tax bills.

Clatterbuck said citizens are balking when asked for donations and pointing to the fact that they are now paying a specific fire and rescue tax.

Monaco said that some patients are refusing to accept service if they will be asked to pay for transport.

Clatterbuck added that the volunteer companies, in a sense, are competing with the paid rescue personnel for county tax-levy dollars.

“There has never been a competition as far as I have known,” said County Administrator Frank Bossio.

But Clatterbuck, who commended the paid staff for its fine work, said that in essence it could come down to a raise for the professional staff versus the need for a fire truck for a volunteer company.

Bossio suggested putting a notice on tax bills explaining to taxpayers that 3.5 cents of the tax levy goes to the paid staff while 4.5 cents is divided equally among the nine volunteer groups.

“I’d like to see us get rid of the fire and rescue tax levy [designation] and put all the money in the general fund to be divided administratively,” said Steve Corbin, president of Company 1, the county’s oldest volunteer group.

Corbin also said that his company would have no problem with hiring an outside consulting group to come in and assess the county’s needs and current status.

“But it should be a totally independent person, someone who doesn’t even know our name,” Corbin added, stating that bringing in the Program of Fire Services to do the job would be a waste of time.

Supervisors Sue Hansohn and Steve Nixon have called for an independent assessment for more than a year, but that request has been a bone of contention with the fire association.

No matter where the conversation ventured at yesterday’s summit, it eventually came back to the question of soft billing by the volunteers.

“It’s double taxation,” said Richard Lee, who is treasurer for the Culpeper County Volunteer Rescue Squad (Company 11). “It is unjust to bill me for services if I am already paying taxes [for those same services].”

Bossio said it was not double taxation because the payments were coming from insurance companies.

“I’m paying insurance premiums and taxes,” Lee countered. “That’s like charging each student a dollar to ride the school bus.”

While the soft-billing issue for volunteer companies remains far from settled, Clatterbuck stressed the fact that if it is adopted, a system would have to be devised to make sure all the proceeds would be divided equally.

“We don’t want this to become a candy store for the most-favored departments,” he said.

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