N.Y. fire officials push for ambulance billing legislation

The Fair Play Ambulance Cost Recovery Act would enable fire departments to recover costs associated with providing ambulance services


Cara Chapman
The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.

ALTONA, N.Y. — State Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D- Chateaugay Lake) joined multiple fire and EMS officials Thursday to call for passage of the Fair Play Ambulance Cost Recovery Act, which would enable fire departments to recover costs associated with providing ambulance services.

According to the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, fire departments are the only ambulance service providers in the state that cannot bill for those services. The organization says the bill would help the departments recoup $100 million in EMS costs, about $3 million of which would go to North Country departments that provide ambulance services.

Currently, fire districts have to go to taxpayers in order to absorb those costs, Jones said.

"So this is a money-saving bill for our taxpayers, but above all it's a health and safety bill for our community members," he told media at the Altona Volunteer Fire Department.

MAKE THIS HAPPEN

Jones said the idea behind the Fair Play Ambulance Cost Recovery Act, of which he is the sponsor, has been around for decades, with its current iteration in place for likely the last 15 years.

"All this bill does is it eliminates the prohibition behind volunteer fire departments billing for ambulatory services," he said. "It's as simple as that.

"Without this, we could face a possibility someday of no one responding to a call, no one being on the end of that call to get our loved ones the medical care that they need in their most desperate time of need. We do not want that."

Joseph Finnegan, past president of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York and a former Madrid Fire Department chief, said he recalled when the idea was first brought up in the early 1980s.

"I do realize there's no such thing as a no-brainer in Albany, but this has got to be as close as you can get. We need to make this happen."

TWO-THIRDS OF BUDGET

Altona Fire District Board of Fire Commissioners Chair Ryan Blondo said roughly two-thirds of the district's operating budget — around $500,000 to $600,000 — is earmarked for its EMS service, leaving just one-third to maintain the fire house and rigs, cover insurance and pay other bills.

"It's only after all of those bills are paid that we can look at how we can advance our fire service, the men and women who will respond when our homes are engulfed in flames and ... what can we do to help them provide better for our communities."

Blondo said the financial situation is so dire that the district relies on the support of the volunteers, who fundraise to provide essential equipment like the brush truck and an all-terrain vehicle currently housed at the station.

He added that several pieces of equipment are in need of replacement.

"But because over two thirds of our budget cannot be recouped by the actual user of the service, we're stuck in a holding pattern in regards to replacing those pieces of equipment."

ONLY STATE

Blondo said New York is the only state in the country that does not give its fire districts authorization to bill for pre-hospital ambulance treatment.

Jones said he did not know how many excuses he had heard over the years from detractors of the bill, adding that he believes paid ambulance services around the state feel that the legislation would encroach on them.

"In a lot of cases, it comes down to territory and money, as sad as that sounds when we're talking about public safety and putting lives first," he said.

"If it's good enough for the other 49 states, why isn't it good enough for New York?"

MULTIPLE SPONSORS

The Senate version of the bill, cosponsored by State Sen. Dan Stec (R- Queensbury) passed 61 to 2 in June.

Jones' Assembly version has more than 60 cosponsors and multi-sponsors, including Assemblyman Matt Simpson (R- Horicon), and received unanimous support from the Assembly's Committee on Local Governments.

Jones' communications coordinator, Constance Mandeville, said the Assembly would have to pass the bill by the end of the year for it to make it to the governor's desk. Otherwise, both houses of the legislature would need to pass it again next session.

Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York 1st Vice President Donald Corkery pledged that he would walk from Long Island, where he lives, to Altona if the bill does not pass.

"Every fire department in this state benefits from this bill," he said, calling on Albany politicians, who he referred to as "friends in government," to be the heroes this time and pass the bill.

SURVIVABILITY

Locust Valley Fire District Board of Commissioners Chair Peter Olson said a lot had been said about how the bill relates to sustainability of the volunteer fire departments.

"This is not about sustainability; this is about survivability."

R. Scott Ewing, New York State Association of Fire Chiefs 2nd vice president and deputy chief of the Town of Plattsburgh District #3 Fire Department, said the bill's passage could only be accomplished through the collaboration of the organizations present at the press conference.

Clinton County Emergency Services Director Eric Day pointed out that none of the hundreds of trips taken by the ambulance situated behind himself and the other officials are reimbursed, and that patients' insurance could pay them the same amount that goes to ambulance providers who are currently able to bill.

"This legislation needs to pass because it will help small communities, small ambulance services. It'll help some big ones, too, from one corner of the state to the other."

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(c)2021 the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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