In a divided vote, the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association decided yesterday to begin billing insurers for ambulance calls -- emergency medical service that had previously been provided for free.
The 9-4 vote, with one abstention, came after a heated debate during the firefighters' 75th annual convention, held at New Windsor Middle School. The debate was interrupted by the school's fire alarm -- apparently set off accidentally by a child.
Sixty-six delegates from all 14 of the county's volunteer fire companies, voting in groups, decided that each would control its own billing rather than have it handled by the county government or an association committee.
However, they agreed to form a committee that would serve as a controlling body to establish uniform fees -- which would be billed only to insurers, and not to individuals.
"The committee would set uniform billing fees, put contracts out for bids to billing companies for the best cost, would help track billing and look into the ramifications of billing in other counties," said Robert P. Cumberland Jr., the association's newly elected first vice president.
About 85 percent of the operating budget for the 14 stations is provided by the county government, which had been in discussions with the association about instituting billing procedures for ambulance services. Some companies already bill insurers.
"The bottom line is that the commissioners want all ambulance companies to start billing," said Dennis Beard, treasurer of the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Company. "You already have four companies billing. We don't want to bill, but if we have to, we want to do it ourselves. We want the bill to come from Sykesville and get the money back for the calls we handle."
Pleasant Valley, Union Bridge, Westminster and Winfield began billing insurers last year. The companies have contracts with billing agencies and charge $300 to $575 per call.
"If we can't agree on this and manage it ourselves, it will go back to the county government," Cumberland warned the group. "The more money we ask the commissioners for, the deeper they go into your pocket, and the more control the county will want."
The county and association exchanged proposals on ambulance billing earlier this month and yesterday's package is to be presented to the county commissioners.
A second point of contention yesterday was county funding for advanced life support system (ALS) personnel. Twelve of the companies have paid personnel from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Four of the 12 companies -- Westminster, Sykesville, Manchester and Taneytown -- were recently given round-the-clock ALS providers on a trial basis to improve response times in the busiest areas of the county.
But some of the other stations receiving funding for daytime ALS personnel fear that the county might take money away to cover costs of the full-time services.
"The Westminster Fire Department does not support taking money from other stations to pay for our 24-hour service," Westminster Fire Department President James E. Bangerd III assured the delegates, concerned that cuts in funding at some stations would increase the workloads at the four with full-time service.
Gene Curfman, county comptroller and Firemen's Association member, told the group that the money used for weekday paid personnel would go to the 24-hour coverage and remaining nTC money would cover any shortfall the other companies had from billing.
"The commissioners have said they will not increase any EMS funding, so billing will be the only way to make up the extra funding for the 24-hour companies," he said.
The county has agreed to increase its contribution for the fire companies' operating budget to 90 percent beginning July 1. The county allocated $555,610 in the current fiscal year for paid ambulance personnel in 12 stations.
The association voted to ask the county to maintain the 90 percent funding while the countywide billing system gets started.
New Windsor Fire and Hose Company No. 1 served as host of yesterday's annual meeting.
Pub Date: 5/17/98