BETHLEHEM — Starting Sept. 1, the town will begin charging residents for ambulance services provided by Delmar-Bethlehem EMS (DBEMS). Until now, Bethlehem has been the only municipality in the region to waive co-pays and deductibles for residents who use town-contracted ambulance services. Now, say town officials, extra revenue is needed to offset rising costs and the debt service on a recently purchased building on Adams Street that will house DBEMS and the Department of Public Works.
The town will still waive costs in excess of $100 per call, according to the amended contract. A memo sent to the Town Board by Bethlehem Comptroller Michael Cohen stated that the change is expected to net an additional $46,000 in annual revenue.
Because town residents pay property taxes that support DBEMS, the town has previously waived the collection of all co-pays and deductibles from those residents on the grounds that they are already subsidizing those services. When that provision was included in the contract between the town and DBEMS, ambulance rides typically cost $25 to (in rare cases) $100, according to Bethlehem Board of Ambulance and EMS Commissioner Terry Hannigan. In recent years, those costs have risen significantly and, in some cases, are in excess of $1,000. As part of the contract, the town is obligated to compensate DBEMS annually for those waived payments — currently, just under $200,000 a year.
To mitigate those rising costs, and help cover debt service cost for the bond issues relating to the work on the Adams Street building, approximately $235,000 annually, the Board of Ambulance Commissioners, along with DBEMS and the Town Comptroller’s Office, requested that the Town Board approve an amendment to allow the collection of up to $100 from residents who utilize DBEMS ambulance services. During the Aug. 23 Town Board meeting, Supervisor John Clarkson, along with board members Giles Wagoner, Julie Sasso and Joyce Becker, approved that request after Hannigan and Cohen answered several questions put to them by Becker.
Regarding how the fees will be collected, Hannigan explained that the payments would be pursued and collected, by DBEMS, following protocols established within the contract. “I don’t foresee this as opening up a run on bill collectors throughout the town.” He explained that there are a variety of payment options already in place, including a hardship option should a resident be unable to pay.
Hannigan acknowledged that the change could create difficulties for some residents. “It’s not as beneficent to residents as a complete waiver,” he said. “But, it does address a problem that did not exist when we introduced the complete waiver.”
“We considered a number of different options,” Hannigan said, noting that DBEMS and the comptroller’s office were involved in the various conversations that took place to determine how to address the issue of the lost revenue. “We came to the conclusion that an equitable way to initially address the problem would be to get rid of the waiver of co-pays for the first $100.”
He added that another consideration had been to do away with the waiver altogether.
“It’s not a thrilling prospect,” he said, “because it’s going to cost town residents who use the service if they have a co-pay or a deductible, but it doesn’t create the hardship that [it would] if we eliminate it in its entirety… So it’s an effort to address a burgeoning problem that did not exist at the inception of our contractual relationship with Delmar-Bethlehem EMS. It seems to be a fair compromise for all the parties concerned.”
The Board of Ambulance and EMS Commissioners will continue to monitor the new system, said Hannigan, to appraise whether projected revenues are accurate and identify any issues that may arise.