The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to start charging a fee to use the county's ambulances although several supervisors said they were uncomfortable with the fee and that they feared that it would dissuade lower-income residents from calling 911 in an emergency.
Starting this spring, Fairfax County will bill patients' health insurance companies between $300 and $500 per ambulance ride. Uninsured county residents will get a bill but won't be required to pay it, said Fire Chief Michael Neuhard.
"We're going to transport everyone regardless of their ability to pay," he said. Uninsured residents, who number about 100,000 in Fairfax County, will be excused from paying the fee if they return a waiver form to the county. If they do not return the form, the charge will be dropped.
Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) supported the measure with reservations.
"I'm not happy about doing this," she said. At her request, the board will get a report on the fee's implementation next year.
"If there are significant problems then I will be the first one to discontinue the program," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon).
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) also said she was concerned about the fee. "I'm not sure that we're heading in the right direction," he said.
Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason), who killed a similar proposal last year, said she wanted an educational campaign targeting low-income communities in the county about the fee.
"I would want to be sure that this would be tailor-made for Fairfax County."
ALTHOUGH THE board already unofficially approved the ambulance fee last month when they passed a budget that includes revenue from the fee, supervisors were legally required to hold a public hearing and vote on the fee separately from the budget process. Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) said the hearing was more than a formality. "In the past we've adopted budgets and then had folks choose not to do things that we've agreed to do."
The fee will be implemented this spring. It will raise about $750,000 in its first year and between $6 and $8 million a year subsequently, she said. Arlington County, the City of Alexandria, Washington, D.C., and Prince George's County Md. already have an ambulance fee.
Several speakers during the public hearing said the fee would discourage people from calling an ambulance.
"Getting a bill, even if the public education campaign says you can ignore it doesn't calm you down," said Reston resident Sally Carroll.
Bob Weissman, of Vienna said his 85-year-old parents who live in the county have used ambulances and would be hurt by the fee, even if they don't have to pay it.
"Two years ago my father was having a heart attack and he was discussing with my mother whether he should call 911 because he didn't know whether he could afford it," he recalled. "He is of the World War II generation that honors their commitments."
But Mike Mohler, president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics said the money raised by the ambulance fee would help the Fire and Rescue Department address staff shortages.
"We have got to find alternative sources of revenue to be able to do this," he said.