Missy Loudin with ASAP Medical Management addresses the Upshur County Commission.
Missy Loudin with ASAP Medical Management addresses the Upshur County Commission.

County considers allowing fire departments to bill for emergency services

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission learned how a fire billing ordinance would work and how it could affect residents and fire departments at their meeting Thursday.

The ordinance would permit fire departments to charge fees to recoup the costs of certain emergency services and equipment. Missy Loudin with ASAP Medical Management, an ambulance billing company based in Buckhannon, attended the March 18 Upshur County Commission meeting to explain how any potential ordinance would work.

“What the county commission has to do is set up rules they want the fire departments to follow,” Loudin said. “They establish a procedure for everybody to follow, and then that allows any fire department in the county to be able to bill.”

She provided the commission with Monongalia County’s billing ordinance for volunteer fire departments as an example.

“The County of Commission of Monongalia County, West Virginia, pursuant to WV Code 7-1-3d, hereby authorizes each volunteer fire department to charge for services rendered,” the ordinance reads. “This authorization allows the volunteer fire departments of Monongalia County to charge the property owners or other persons responsible or liable for payment of such services for equipment and materials used in performing firefighting and inspection services, victim rescues or cleanup of debris or hazardous materials by department personnel.”

Loudin said the maximum amount that can be billed is $1,500.

“[The legislature] increased the amount that you’re allowed to bill,” Loudin said. “It used to only be $500, and now it’s $1,500 per incident, except for on the HAZMAT calls, where there is no cap on the dollar amount that you can bill.”

Commissioner Terry Cutright asked if they could write the ordinance to say the fire departments will only bill insurance, and if an individual does not have insurance and pays their fire fee, they will not be billed. However, if they don’t pay the fire fee, the person would be billed whether they have insurance or not.

“Yes, you can put that in your ordinance if you choose, as long as the rules are clear,” Loudin said. “Your ordinance should also have clear rules about which fire department can bill in each situation, because if you leave it up for grabs, then [the fire departments] are going to start fighting. If you establish in your ordinance whose area it is that should be responding to that call, they should get first option to bill.”

She said there can also be instances where two departments respond and do different jobs, such as traffic control and putting out a fire.

“Say the City of Buckhannon showed up, and then the Adrian Fire Department showed up — if Buckhannon is putting out the fire, and Adrian’s doing the traffic control, that’s two different things, so they could both bill,” she said. “But they both shouldn’t bill for the fire, even if they both are putting out the fire. One company needs to bill, and that should be established in the ordinance.”

She said most insurance policies include fire coverage, but Upshur County does not currently have a policy for fire departments to bill for services.

“There’s some kind of fire coverage in all of their policies, but Upshur County is not currently billing for it,” Loudin said. “I know people are going to be upset, because they do pay a fire fee, but the service is covered under their policy so it’s crazy for the county to not allow the fire departments to bill the insurance and recoup some of that money.”

Not all calls are eligible for billing, Loudin added.

“There are many calls that they can’t bill for, like when they assist the EMS,” she said. “Fire departments can bill if they respond to an auto accident and they had to extract the patient or do traffic control, but they can’t charge anything to medical insurance — it’s only available to homeowners insurance or auto insurance.”

And Loudin warned it can be hard to actually collect the money since insurance companies often fight the charges.

“Fire departments are tough,” she said. “Insurance companies fight these fire bills left and right, which is part of the reason why [our company] steers clear of them, because they are such a pain.”

Joey Baxa, a captain with the Buckhannon Fire Department, said billing for emergency services can cause fire departments to prioritize money over of their mission. He pointed to cases in other areas where departments don’t work together in the most efficient way because they want to be able to send a bill.

“There have been multiple instances where a department assists a neighboring county on an MVA on a stretch of roadway that is pretty far away. That department is probably not needed, but they would make sure they sent their smallest pickup truck all the way out there to get the VIN number of the vehicles so that they can send a bill later on, even though they literally did nothing,” Baxa said.

He said he’s not completely against the idea, but he wants to make sure fire departments don’t forget their mission.

“I’d be very careful how you shift the mission of your fire departments, because if you shift it to a money recovery business, that changes the focus and there are people gaming the system because the object was to make as much money off the call as they could,” Baxa said. “It sounds great, and I’ll be all for it if it can be done in a very simple manner that does not bring hardship on fire departments.”

The commission did not make any decisions regarding a potential fire billing ordinance. Commission president Kristie Tenney said they would continue to research the idea.

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