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Virginia City Considers Ambulance Fee

Rides to the hospital may no longer be free for some Montgomery County residents if discussion of new ambulance charges becomes reality. Christiansburg officials are rolling out an information campaign beginning today to test the waters for the concept, which already has been implemented in numerous localities including Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem.

Christiansburg spokeswoman Becky Wilburn said Monday that the town hopes to inform residents of the need for charging for emergency transports and care, explain how it would work, and see how much support there is for the idea.

Presently, volunteer rescue squads in Montgomery County do not charge for service, though private ambulance services do. Actually instituting new fees can't happen without the town council's approval, and there is no plan for a vote soon, Wilburn said. "We're still many months out from council taking action," she said.

Money raised from the Emergency Medical Services Revenue Recovery Plan, as the still-developing proposal is being called, would let Christiansburg hire rescue staff to help cover day shifts. Currently, the town has one paid rescuer, Capt. Joe Coyle, leading an otherwise all-volunteer staff of about 60 people. Coyle said Monday that volunteers still will be crucial to maintaining rescue services, but having additional paid staffers will make for more consistent service. In addition, money from fees would help cover the always-rising cost of specialized equipment, Coyle said. Christiansburg presently puts about $500,000 of town money toward emergency medical response services each year. About $100,000 more is contributed by Montgomery County, because the squad serves a section of the county outside town limits as well.

Christiansburg's squad answers 3,400 to 4,000 calls per year, Coyle and Wilburn said. Nearly half have been outside of the town recently. Floyd County Administrator Dan Campbell said the fee mechanism that county officials put in place there about a decade ago works smoothly and pays nearly all of the costs of six full-time-equivalent paid rescue positions. "At this point, the citizens, the vast majority, see the advantages" of the fee system, Campbell said.

Christiansburg has issued a request for proposals to companies that would administer billing for the new system. Proposals are due by May 18, and it likely would be a couple of months later that the town council would consider whether to adopt a fee structure. Fees have not been determined, but likely would range from several hundred dollars for transport to the hospital to a $500 or $600 charge for life support, Coyle and Wilburn said. The town would refuse service to no one and have a "compassionate billing" mechanism to waive bills for the needy, they said. "A chief concern with instituting fees is to not discourage those who need help from calling for it," Coyle said. A volunteer in Roanoke County when it adopted fees in 2000, Coyle said the county saw no decrease in demand for service. Still, throughout the process ahead, the focus will be on "outcomes before incomes - good patient outcomes," Coyle said.


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