County fee to create income

The Baltimore Sun

The county will begin charging for ambulance rides on the first of next month - but residents will not be responsible for paying any portion of the $500 fee.

"An Anne Arundel County resident, regardless of whether they have insurance or not, will not get a bill under any circumstances," said fire department spokesman Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia.

The county will bill insurance companies for the fee, but will not charge county residents for a deductible or a co-pay. Residents without insurance will not have to pay for ambulance rides. Out-of-county residents will be expected to pay the full amount, although the fee will be waived for people with lower incomes.

The new policy is expected to bring in $2 million this year and $8 million in subsequent years, County Executive John R. Leopold said.

"I made a commitment not to increase property or income taxes, but I have a responsibility to generate revenue," he said. "The ambulance fee is another mechanism to help us deal with the enormous budget deficit."

Nationwide, about 75 percent of jurisdictions bill for ambulance rides. Locally, Baltimore City and Prince George's, Queen Anne's and Frederick counties charge a fee. Since July, Prince George's has charged $500 for a basic life support ambulance and up to $750 for advanced life support.

But some community leaders said they are afraid that residents - particularly senior citizens, disabled people and the poor - will avoid necessary medical care because they do not understand the program and are afraid of incurring fees.

"I have a fear that instead of calling 911, people will stop and say, 'Should I call? I don't have $500, so maybe I can get by until tomorrow,'" said Gary O'Neil, the president of the Arundel Neighborhoods Association in the Brooklyn Park area.

Cecelia Fabula, a member of the advisory board for the Brooklyn Park senior center, said that many seniors are ill-informed about the fee and that the county should be doing more to educate residents.

"If they don't have the information and all they know is there's a $500 fee, they're not going to want to call," she said. "That's the way my generation works."

O'Neil and Fabula spoke about the bill at last week's County Council meeting as members debated a bill introduced by Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks that would have prevented the charge from going into effect. The bill was defeated by a 5-2 vote.

The fee "could have dire health consequences for our seniors" said Councilman Daryl Jones, who supported Middlebrooks' bill. The legislation does not guarantee that the residents will not have to pay the fee, he said.

But Councilman James G. Benoit said that although he has reservations, he voted for the fee and believes that residents will not be discouraged from calling 911.

"The county is just in dire financial straits right now, and cutting off revenue streams right now is just not something we can do," he said. "It's just a way for the county to capture revenue from insurance companies that the companies have an obligation to pay."

The fire department plans a media blitz to inform residents of the fee, including public service announcements on radio and television, newspaper ads and brochures, Tobia said, adding that he has spoken at five of the county's seven senior centers about the program.

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