CHICAGO -- The City Council's most powerful alderman suggested Friday that Chicago privatize the collection of city ambulance fees to raise a dismal 37.5 percent collection rate that has created a $50 million-a-year debt.
Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) described the ambulance fee debt as "low-hanging fruit" that would go a long way toward maintaining Chicago Fire Department operations at a time when Mayor Rahm Emanuel has demanded a 20 percent cut.
"If private ambulance operators in Illinois can collect their fees, the Fire Department needs to investigate whether or not privatizing that function would be helpful. I'm not talking about a collection agency. That's after-the-fact a year down the line. I'm talking about current collections," Burke said.
"Almost every one of those victims has insurance, so it's just a question of properly identifying the insurance carrier and properly billing and collecting from the insurance company. It's not like harassing the person who might have been stricken with a heart attack or stroke or some victim of an auto accident out on the street."
Chicago began charging for ambulance service in the 1980s and has struggled to collect those fees ever since.
In 2009, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley nearly doubled ambulance fees - from $325 and $8 a mile to $600 and $13 a mile for basic life support and from $400 and $8 a mile to $700 and $13 a mile for advanced life support. Nonresidents were asked to pay $100 on top of that.
But weeks before the increases took effect, Chicago taxpayers were forced to give back $6.9 million in fees already collected for ambulance transport. Those fees had been collected from Medicare during the five-year period ending in September 2005.
Fifty paramedics were disciplined for making billing mistakes. All paramedics and emergency medical technicians were retrained.
Overdue ambulance fees are collected by the DeZonia Group under a five-year, $20 million contract that's due to expire next year.
The company promised to dramatically improve collections and reduce the number of transports for which insurance coverage was not identified for a flat rate of 7 percent of actual collections.