Moses Lake adopts new ambulance policies

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MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake City Council adopted new policies Tuesday making it easier for patients transported by ambulance to get insurance companies to pitch in and establishing financial assistance and debt forgiveness for ambulance services.

Previously, some insurance providers have billed patients for the ambulance services as an “out-of-network” service, as though there were a preferred provider the patient had opted not to use. Now, the policy clearly states that there is no preferred provider, making it easier for the city’s billing company to get insurance providers to pay a larger share of the cost, Fire Chief Brett Bastian said at a March 23 council meeting.

A debt forgiveness and financial assistance policy was also established for the first time, giving the city flexibility to assist patients without the means to pay for ambulance transport bills.

Full debt forgiveness will be provided to patients with a gross family income at or below 100 percent of Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, which change by year and the number of people in a household. For instance, $12,490 is currently the poverty limit for a single-person household, whereas $25,750 is the cutoff for a family of four, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under certain circumstances, households with an income of 200 percent of the poverty level could also receive some debt forgiveness, if approved by the city’s financial director. The policy also establishes payment plans, to help spread out costs over a period of time.

The policy changes have been under consideration for months, held up by concerns that the city was continuing to charge for ambulance services in the first place. Until the beginning of 2018, residents who paid ambulance utility fees hadn’t paid for ambulance rides, Bastian said at an April 23 meeting. However, this appeared to have been an uncodified change made at the whim of a previous city employee, Bastian said.

“At some point in the past, a previous finance director gave direction to the billing clerks to just stop collecting those copays,” Bastian said last month. “He had no authority from the council to do that, and it just kinda became that people believed that if you paid a utility fee, you didn’t have to pay for an ambulance.”

The city collected $1,651,814 from the ambulance utility fee in 2018. The 2018 fee for a residential unit was $11.85 per month, and the 2019 fee is $12.20 per month. To cover the full costs to operate ambulance services, utility fees would have to double, Bastian said.

Instead, under the adopted structure, the utility fees do not cover the cost of service, but rather pay for the availability and timeliness of ambulance services in the city, Bastian said.

Bastian compared the ambulance utility fee to taxes that residents pay to the local hospital district, which provides the community with a nearby hospital but does not pay for free hospital visits. In the same way, the ambulance utility fee pays for the availability and timeliness of ambulances responding to emergency calls, but users still have to pay for the actual service if they use an ambulance, Bastian said.

The ambulance fee also helps cover costs for the fire department, which draws from a similar pool of resources.

“Keep in mind, our ambulance services are tied to the hip with our fire department,” Bastian said.

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.

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