Firefighters Seek Insurance Payments for Ambulance Services

Originally published in The State

(ALBANY, N.Y.) 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, the leaders of statewide firefighter groups said Monday.

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, volunteer ambulance corps and private ambulance companies can do so.

Firefighters, fire chiefs and other emergency services officials from around the state were at the state Capitol 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.

Brooks said the legislation 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.

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."

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.

The Democrat-controlled Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill Monday but it wasn't among a four-part package of firefighter-related legislation approved in floor votes. It hasn't been scheduled for a floor vote in the Assembly, also led by Democrats.