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West Covina to Offer Ambulance Insurance

WEST COVINA -- When resident Ingrid Geibel got in a car accident and needed an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the last thing on her mind was how much it would cost.

Fortunately for Geibel, she survived the crash and then found out that insurance covered all of her ambulance bills.

But many are not as lucky.

For the uninsured and even insured, a ride to the hospital via an ambulance can cost up to $1,600, said Geibel, a health insurance worker who handles insurance claims.

But for those who participate in a new program being implemented in West Covina, residents won't have to pay for these high costs.

On a 3-2 vote, the City Council approved last week a voluntary ambulance fee that charges $48 a year per household.

Under the program, participants who pay the annual fee to cover ambulance transportation costs to the hospital would not be responsible for any out-of-pocket costs.

Fire Chief Paul Segalla called the program a win-win: it serves to protect residents from costly fees and produces extra revenue for the city at a time when funding is hard to find.

It is estimated that the program could generate as much as $200,000 a year. The city currently bills patients directly for paramedic services. In 2006-07, West Covina's ambulance revenue was nearly $1.6 million.

"Under this voluntary program, any West Covina resident can protect their entire household from the expenses associated with emergency ambulance service by paying a $48 annual subscription fee," according to the city's Feb. 17 staff report.

But not everyone supports the program. Council members Sherri Lane and Mike Touhey voted against it.

While Touhey said he supports the concept, there were ambiguities in the program, he said. Among them was how many people per household could be covered under the $48 a year, and how the program provides coverage for those with different types of medical insurance.

"I am concerned that we could potentially start charging for all the services, and I am concerned that this is slippery slope," Touhey said.

Segalla said the program serves as a type of supplemental type of insurance, but he is concerned that, "those who really need the program won't take advantage of it."

Several cities in the San Gabriel Valley, including Arcadia, La Verne, Downey and Alhambra offer this service, though participation is generally less than 10 percent in each city. West Covina is counting on 4 percent of the population to participate in order to generate nearly $200,000 annually.

La Verne voters in 1980 passed a measure that allowed the city to bill them $1.75 a month on their utility bills to pay for the paramedic services. Today, that amount has increased to $4 a month - or $48 a year.

"Its intent was to subsidize the paramedic bill," said La Verne Fire Department Chief John Breaux. The measure brings in nearly $650,000 annually, and is applied to the city's nearly $2 million annual paramedic budget.

In Alhambra, the program was implemented nearly 20 years ago. Participation has staled over the past few years, which is why there has been an increased effort by the fire department to recruit more members, said Fire Chief Bruce Stedman.

In 2006-07, Alhambra only had 2,174 participants, which represents about 2 percent of the population. In the past six months, they have nearly doubled that figure, Stedman said.

"This is such an important service to our residents, and we are trying to get as many people to participate in it as we can," Stedman said.

Cities such as Covina or Rosemead that contract with Los Angeles County Fire Department do not have the option of such a fee. County fire stations rely on private ambulance companies.

West Covina's program will be formally adopted in March.


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