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Editorial: Think big on ambulance problem

State legislators should not take a summer break without passing a bill that would allow fire departments and fire districts to recover the cost of providing ambulance service from insurers as well as from Medicare and Medicaid.

But there needs to be a condition: Volunteer fire department officials should simultaneously agree to consolidate. As noted in a previous editorial, governments and taxing districts are practically tripping over one another across Erie County and the entire state. An example cited in this newspaper documented the disparity between fire district costs in North Amherst compared with Getzville, where one neighbor who can see another across the street is paying far more for critical protection.

Fire departments want relief, but so do taxpayers. Maybe consolidation would encourage residents and business owners to help push the fire company agenda. Let’s fix it all.

Recouping costs for critical care is necessary. Right now, fire departments are at a disadvantage, as they are the only emergency medical services providers in New York State prohibited from recovering costs associated with ambulance calls.

That includes volunteer fire companies, who are often the most affected. The policy puts an undue financial burden on the fire districts, which must foot the bill for wear and tear on vehicles and equipment. New ambulances can cost $150,000 or more, and another $20,000 to equip. Then there’s gas and maintenance.

Legislation currently stuck in committee in both the Senate and Assembly would put the onus squarely on the patient’s insurer. No new taxes, no new fees for residents.

Providing EMS services requires significant investment in time, training and resources. Many departments, especially rural ones, are having trouble keeping up with the call volume.

Here is how an ambulance call, in general, works in some areas: Someone dials 911 because she needs an ambulance. The volunteer firefighters will respond to the fire station, pick up the ambulance, go to the location of the call, treat and transport the patient to the hospital, complete any necessary paperwork, replace supplies and then return the truck to the station.

It is a time-consuming process. Right now, emergency medical services are funded out of existing fire budgets. The exact nature of the budget varies from department to department and district to district. One thing the departments have in common is that they cannot recoup those costs.

The legislation that would recover these costs through insurance, Medicare and Medicaid should move out of committee and onto the floor for a “yes” vote.

The costs incurred to transport patients should be recouped through insurers, or by using the social safety nets that already exist. Once that is accomplished, volunteer fire departments should embark on the politically difficult but necessary job of consolidation. It’s time to sort out all of the system’s financial quirks, not just this one.

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