The Western Albemarle Rescue Squad has agreed to support the billing of insurance companies for transporting patients to local hospitals. WARS, which prides itself on being “all volunteer, all the time,” has never charged for its service, and wrestled with county officials for three years over participating in the county’s “cost recovery” program for generating revenues for county emergency medical services by charging insurance companies.
WARS members fought the policy, fearing that once the public believed that WARS’s costs were being covered elsewhere, the long tradition of community financial support for the volunteers would deteriorate. WARS is an independent corporation.
WARS leaders insisted that the county not send bills to county residents whom WARS transports and won that concession. Thus no one will ever be denied emergency medical treatment or transportation based on their ability to pay. The uninsured will not be charged. But WARS will collect insurance information when available and non-Albemarle residents will be charged. County residents will not be charged for any amount owed above what their insurance company authorizes. This policy went into effect countywide August 1.
The county instituted its EMS Cost Recovery Program in 2010 and since then county ambulances based at Hollymead, Monticello, Pantops, Rt. 29 North and Ivy, as well as the volunteer squad in Scottsville, have been participating. On September 1, WARS and the Earlysville Volunteer Fire Department will be brought into the fold.
County spokeswoman Lee Catlin said the county is trying to collect from insurance companies who are already charging policyholders for the coverage. The county got the approval of the state’s Office of the Inspector General, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, to implement the residents’ program, she said. Insurance billing for EMS transport is established in 40 localities in Virginia, and some 50 volunteer squads around the state are participating. Medicare and Medicaid will cover ambulance service. Catlin said the county’s goal is to relieve county taxpayers from completely shouldering the burden of supporting EMS services.
“When we started this three years ago, we said we wouldn’t do it unless nobody gets a bill,” said WARS chief Kostas Alibertis. “We have volunteers who said they would quit if we went to collecting.” It’s not clear now if any will.
“We started out saying we wanted the money to come to us. The county did not want to give us the money directly. They wanted to be the collector. They still don’t think of it as our money, but as their money. They say that if we need facility improvements, we can make requests to the county’s Capital Improvements Program.
“We got the best deal we could,” he said. “Our agency is protected. There is no ‘good’ deal in this. It doesn’t make sense for the volunteers to have to collect the money and then for us to have to argue for the money back. It should come to us.
“The service we provide costs a fraction of what it costs for the professionals and we are all performing to the same standard. It should be cost-neutral to be a volunteer.”
The county is now buying ambulances through the CIP, Alibertis said. WARS needs a replacement ambulance, which he expects will cost nearly $200,000 by the time it is fitted out. The squad also needs a new response car, a car that accompanies the ambulance when it leaves on a call in case the squad receives a second call while it is at a scene and the EMT must dash to another location. He said that before long a replacement crash truck will also be needed, at a cost of somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000. WARS currently has three ambulances, one crash truck and two response cars.
Alibertis said he appreciates that the county has expenses in offering EMS services, some of which directly affect WARS’s service, such as staffing the dispatch center. The county is currently covering WARS’s annual operating costs—gas, utilities, etc.—contributing about $212,000 per year.
“Scottsville’s donations have dropped off pretty substantially because of this,” said Alibertis.
Donations to WARS now will go the squad’s new building fund, he said. The squad anticipates needing to relocate to a new base south of the railroad tracks in downtown Crozet where it will remain close to the densest population in its service area and still be convenient and attractive for volunteers. He said the cost of a new facility would approach $5 million.
“We appreciate it that the community supports us,” said squad vice president Greg Paquin, an EMT since 1978 who has served with WARS 14 years. Alibertis joined WARS in 1985, nearly 30 years of volunteer effort. The squad currently has about 75 members, about 50 of whom are responding to the majority of calls. Bob Knox is WARS’s longest serving-volunteer, active since 1984.
Alibertis said that WARS expects to answer 1,400 emergency calls this year.
“We’ll still be all-volunteer,” said Paquin. “We will still provide the service. We have a good member base.”
The squad will host a public information meeting at Crozet Library Monday August 25 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. to be available to talk to the public about the new policy.