Montgomery County's ambulance fee could end up on the November ballot -- again.
The county's volunteer firefighters are moving forward with efforts to let voters decide the fate of the measure, which allows the county to seek reimbursement from insurance companies for operating ambulances. The firefighters need 15,546 valid voter signatures by Aug. 11, and another 15,546 valid signatures by Aug. 26, to get their referendum.
When a similar bill was on the ballot in November 2010, 54 percent of voters rejected it.
After it takes effect Jan. 1, the ambulance fee is expected to earn the county a net $7.6 million in the second half of fiscal 2013 and a net $16.4 million in fiscal 2014. The revenue will be collected in the form of fees charged to insurance companies ranging from $400 to $800 for each ambulance trip, but that "doesn't touch the tip of the iceberg of what it costs to actually run the ambulances," according to Scott Graham, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. It doesn't factor in the bulk of the costs of staffing and equipment, he said.
All of this will be billed to patients' insurance companies, Graham said. "No county resident will ever have to pay. Out-of-county residents will be billed for their co-pay or their deductible." Though uninsured patients will have to pay, they can request waivers if they have low or moderate incomes.
Volunteer fire and rescue personnel say they fear that people will avoid calling for ambulances for fear that they will be left with a hefty bill.
They also noted that voters already rejected the ambulance fee once, and now elected officials are ignoring voters' wishes. "What [officials are] saying is they know better than the voters, and that's just not acceptable," said Grant Davies, treasurer of the Bethesda Fire Department.
But the fight is also about money.
Since the bill was passed on May 15, the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association has been grappling with whether to pursue a referendum, and part of that process was negotiating with the county over funding.
The volunteers have said that since the county consolidated its costs with the costs of running the paid Fire and Rescue Service, they haven't had enough money to operate. Some volunteers also argued they won't benefit from the ambulance fee, because the money will go back to the county to allocate. The ambulance fee is another step to undermine the volunteers, they said.
But Graham said officials simply want control over their spending. This referendum effort, he said, is really about regaining that control.
MCVFRA Executive Director Eric Bernard did not return calls for comment.