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Maryland Volunteers Pass on Challenging Ambulance Fee

Volunteer firefighters in Montgomery County will not seek a referendum on a controversial ambulance fee this year after coming to an agreement with county government about billing practices.

The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association had planned to challenge a law passed by the council in May allowing the county to bill insurance companies an estimated $300 to $800 each time a policyholder uses a county ambulance. No county residents would have to pay out of pocket, but the county would be allowed to directly bill uninsured non-county residents, who would have to pay unless they qualify for economic hardship.

The volunteer association objected to the law, planning a referendum effort to ensure that nonresidents who need ambulance service in the county would not be charged directly, either. On Monday, the group announced it had reached an agreement with local leaders.

"What we were able to do with the county is agree that nobody should receive a bill from the county," said Eric Bernard, executive director of the volunteer association.

The group plans to work with County Executive Isaiah "Ike" Leggett to amend the current law, Mr. Bernard said.

"We're going to work on an education campaign so that people know fire and rescue service will come regardless. We are never going to ask about your insurance status," Mr. Bernard said.

In a written statement, Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association President Marcine D. Goodloe said the benefits of the money raised by the fee were "too critical to jeopardize."

The council passed similar legislation in 2010 that was petitioned to referendum and defeated by voters in an effort spearheaded by the volunteer association. It was the county's only law ever to be rejected by referendum.

Voters struck down the ambulance fee by an 8-point margin in 2010, but Mr. Leggett renewed calls for the fee this spring after the state General Assembly passed laws requiring the county to increase its education spending and pay a portion of teacher pension costs.

Mr. Leggett, a Democrat, has argued the changes will force his county to divert funds from other programs and find new revenue streams if it hopes to balance future budgets. County officials said last month they anticipate a $71 million revenue shortfall at the start of next year's budget process.

"These are changed circumstances of monumental significance," Mr. Leggett said. "The additional revenue the county will receive from insurance reimbursements is vital. It will enable us to enhance fire and rescue services to keep pace with population growth without cutting other essential county services."

The ambulance fee, which is slated to go into effect Jan. 1, is expected to generate more than $18 million a year.

Proponents say the fee won't hurt the public because most insurance policies already cover medical transports and companies have money set aside, but many local governments never bother to ask for reimbursement.

Ambulance fees are fairly common in the region, existing in Maryland counties such as Prince George's, Frederick and Anne Arundel; across the Potomac in Arlington and Fairfax counties; and in the District and Baltimore.

Opponents worry that a fee would make some people reluctant to call 911 in a medical emergency. They also insist that insurers will find a way to pass the cost onto consumers by raising premiums.



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