The three-year squabble over charging for ambulance service in Carroll County has not ended with the Reese volunteer fire company's decision to bill $5 to each patient it transports to the hospital.
Other fire companies have been charging fees ranging from about $100 for basic life support to $500 for advanced life support since as early as 1997, but members at Reese have balked, not wishing to request compensation for volunteer services within their community.
Last month, the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association threatened to withhold about $50,000, a quarterly allotment in county funds for ambulance service, if Reese & Community Volunteer Fire Co. did not begin billing patients for emergency medical service.
"I'm pleased Reese has decided to begin billing, but their decision to charge only $5 was a surprise," said Robert Cumberland, association president.
Reese has been the lone holdout on the billing issue among 13 member companies of the association. The 14th member, Harney, does not provide ambulance service.
Jerry Dayton, president of the Reese company, said Wednesday that the $5 figure was reached after billing amounts from $1 to $25 were considered.
"The association did not say how much we had to bill, so $5 should satisfy their order that we begin billing," Dayton said.
A form letter requesting $5 will be sent by Reese to each patient, rather than using an independent billing agency, Dayton said. Patients can pay it, refuse it or turn it over to their insurance company, he said.
A growing population and an increase in calls for emergency service, dwindling numbers of volunteers, especially during the day, and spiraling costs for equipment prompted four companies -- Pleasant Valley, Westminster, Union Bridge and Winfield -- to begin billing in 1997.
Under increased pressure from the former Carroll County Board of Commissioners, the volunteer companies voted 9-4 with one abstention at its annual convention in May 1998 to begin billing for ambulance service.
Members of the Reese company have consistently opposed such billing but appeared ready to accept the association's majority vote after an apparent accord was reached that all county fire companies would begin billing by July 1, 1999.
In February 1999, however, Reese voted against billing its users, prompting last month's association ultimatum: bill or lose its share of the county's allotment for ambulance service.
The association gave Reese until March 6 to comply.
Founded in 1948, Reese has raised thousands of dollars a year through six-day summer carnivals, oyster suppers, bingo games and dances; it has added that money to the county's contribution to its operating budget. The rest of the event-generated money pays for capital expenses, such as new trucks or ambulances.
Dayton has maintained that charging for service takes away from the volunteerism.
"We generate enough money through our events," he said last month. "We feel we don't have to bill the public."
Cumberland, the county fire association president, has been just as resolute.
"Our members do not refuse emergency service to anyone," he said. "We work with the hospital to obtain consent forms so a patient's insurance company is billed for the cost of emergency service."
Cumberland said the association's Emergency Services billing committee is working on a fee structure, so all companies are billing uniformly.
"I would think it should be the goal and objective of all volunteer companies to be in line with the Health Care Federal Administration (HCFA) guidelines governing the amount billed for emergency service," he said.
Cumberland didn't say whether Reese's charging only $5 would satisfy the association.
"We haven't had a meeting since they announced their decision to bill," he said. "I would hope that Reese will come on board with whatever fee structure the billing committee adopts."
Dayton declined to speculate on what members at Reese will do if the association adopts a countywide fee structure.
"We'll wait to see it before saying anything about that," he said.