Riverhead vols push back over plan to bill for ambulance rides

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance First Responder vehicle.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter wants the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps to begin billing the insurance companies of the people it helps, and he’s hoping to have that in place before he develops the 2013 town budget.

But the head of the ambulance corps’ board of directors said the board is not in favor of enacting the policy change, and feels a lot more research is needed before such a step is taken.

The Town Board discussed the issue at its work session last Thursday, and the week before as well, and plans to discuss it even further.
Mr. Walter said he learned during an upstate conference that the town could bill for ambulance service.

The Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps is run by volunteers, but its equipment and headquarters are owned by the town, and the Town Board is officially the commissioner of the ambulance district. The ambulance corps, meanwhile, has its own board of directors.

Under state law, according to deputy town attorney Dan McCormick, the Town Board, not the board of directors, is the only entity entitled to set fees for ambulance service, and any money collected would go to the ambulance district, not to the town’s general fund.

“We are leaving a huge amount of money on the table here that the taxpayers should be collecting,” Mr. Walter said.

He said he will begin developing the 2013 town budget in August and wants to include this money.

“We need to get this fast-tracked and we need to meet with the ambulance district,” Mr. Walter said. “I want to make this part of my budget.”

Mr. McCormick said there are still questions about handling situations involving people who need an ambulance and don’t have insurance.

“I don’t want anybody to not call an ambulance because they can’t afford it,” Councilman John Dunleavy said.

Mr. Walter said the town can send a collection letter to people who are uninsured and send a second letter if there’s no response; after that, the fee would be considered “uncollected.”

“Most insurance companies pay for ambulance use,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “We are missing out on all that money.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio pointed out that town residents already pay ambulance district taxes.

Mr. Walter said that limiting the ambulance charge to out-of-towners “would be setting us up for a problem.”

He said the town could use the money collected from insurers for ambulance use to reduce the amount collected through property tax.

Kim Pokorny, president of the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps board of directors, said in an interview the board is not in favor of having the corps bill people.

“For one thing, residents already pay taxes for it,” Ms. Pokorny said. In addition, she said, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act has privacy requirements that must be followed.

“To train everybody to become HIPAA-compliant is going to be a humongous undertaking,” she said. “We’re so busy with calls, we don’t have the time to take the reins on that.

“It’s something that needs a lot more research and development before they just jump into it head first,” she continued. “It’s also something [the Town Board] needs to discuss with us, and they really haven’t yet. Just a couple comments here and there.”

Ms. Pokorny said HIPAA requirements would place an additional administrative burden on every department in town, because various officials would have to decide who can and can’t see the information.

“It’s a complete nightmare,” she said. “Everybody’s privacy needs to be protected. It needs a lot more work before we get something like that up and running.”

Town Board members said they do plan to discuss the issue with the ambulance corps in the future.

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