Firefighters Seeking Insurance Payments

Allowing fire departments to recoup the cost of their ambulance services from patient insurance plans will help the often cash-strapped organizations’ finances and improve emergency services, especially in rural upstate New York.

New York is the only state in the nation that doesn’t allow fire departments to bill insurers for the cost of providing emergency medical care. Under current law, only volunteer ambulance corps — including Randolph Regional EMS locally — and private ambulance companies can do so.

Firefighters, fire chiefs and other emergency services officials from around the state were at the state Capitol earlier this week to urge state lawmakers to change the law so fire departments can bill the cost of emergency medical calls to patient insurance plans or to Medicaid or Medicare.

The legislation sponsored in the Senate by John Brooks, a Long Island Democrat, and in the Assembly by Billy Jones, a Democrat from northern New York, would do just that, eliminating the prohibition that dates to the late 1950s.

In Randolph, the EMS corps branched out in 2011 from the fire department in order to bill patient care. The nonprofit organization, unique to the Southern Tier, has since grown from 21 volunteer emergency medical technicians and paramedics at its inception to about 45 current members, of whom two are full-time paramedics.

David Senn, president of the Randolph Regional EMS Corps, said the organization has been able to take “baby steps” in its growth over the last seven years. Crews responded to 457 calls in 2018, and Senn projects that number will top 600 this year.

“We certainly have been successful since we branched off the fire department,” said Senn, noting that two additional ambulances have been purchased along with a fly-car program similar to the one in Chautauqua County. The group’s first ambulance leased from the fire department has also been paid in full.

Senn, a paramedic himself, said the organization is typically reimbursed 40 percent of what is billed to patients. That is due to a variety of reasons, including having to negotiate with Medicare and Medicaid.

Sponsors of the legislation allowing volunteers departments to bill insurers without having to create EMS cops said it would improve medical care for New Yorkers. The New York State Association of Fire Chiefs and other groups noted that it would help ensure that a department’s ambulances and other emergency medical services are properly staffed and equipped.

“Providing parity among the different New York ambulance providers and permitting fire departments to recover the costs of EMS calls will help ensure that all New Yorkers can expect a timely, properly-staffed ambulance when they dial 911,” said Julius Leone, president of the fire chiefs group and former Chautauqua County director of emergency services.

Supporters of the legislation say with fire departments responding to far more non-fire-related calls than ever before, local EMS programs require more personnel, equipment and training.

“The places that really need this the most are the places in rural New York state,” said Assemblyman Joe DeStefano, a Long Island Republican who supports the measure. “Sometimes they lose their ambulances two hours at a time, three hours at a time, depending on the severity of the calls.”

Senn said Randolph relies — in addition to a bevy of volunteers — on patient billing and state funding to stay operational. He said new equipment and paid staff would not be possible without the reimbursements.

“I think we’ve got a good system here,” Senn said. “My only concern (with allowing fire department billing) is that the money won’t go to EMS services.”

The legislation is opposed by the United New York Ambulance Network, a statewide trade group representing more than 40 privately owned ambulance service providers. Aside from the impact the legislation could have on a private ambulance service’s business, the group contends the bill isn’t needed because fire departments have the option to separate their EMS squads into stand-alone, not-for-profit ambulance corps that can charge for their services.

Eric Tichy contributed to this story