BUCKHANNON — Upshur County Commissioners, along with Missy Loudin of ASAP Medical Billing, and Buckhannon Fire Department Capt. Joey Baxa discussed the consideration of a County Fire Billing Ordinance Thursday morning. Commissioners are currently striving to learn about all of their options and possibilities, as the discussion of fire fees and billing remains a hot topic amongst citizens and local officials in effort to help financially support Upshur County’s fire departments.
Loudin explained that the state recently increased the amount fire departments could bill citizens. She reported it used to be a maximum of $500, but has increased to $1,500 per incident, with the exception of hazmat situations. The amount reportedly depends on the homeowner’s insurance policy, as well as many other factors. “Everybody’s coverage is different. It’s hard to give a number,” she explained.
Commissioner Terry Cutright asked Loudin, “If three fire departments show up at the same wreck or at the same fire, do all three bill?” Loudin explained that they potentially could, but this is where an ordinance comes into play. “If you leave it up for grabs, they’ll fight over who was there first or I did this,” she explained. If the County Commission does decide to go through with the plan, she explained that they would want to address matters like this within the ordinance.
Cutright also asked if the ordinance could state that Upshur County residents paying a fire fee don’t get billed, or if they don’t have insurance but are paying the fire fee, they don’t get billed. However, if they don’t have insurance and don’t pay fire fee, they get billed. Loudin confirmed that the ordinance could be set up this way. Commission President Kristie Tenney inquired if homeowner’s insurance premiums get raised after they’re billed, like auto insurance typically does when a wreck is reported. Loudin explained that she was unsure about that particular question.
The City of Buckhannon reportedly ran 1,129 fire calls in 2020. According to Capt. Baxa, roughly 36% of those calls are EMS. Of the 1,129 calls, 226 were non-emergent. Loudin explained that with a rough estimate, 108 of the 1,129 were likely billable; therefore, they might get $50,000 for the year from those calls.
Baxa added that one comment he has received from other fire departments is that “the exceptions” in the ordinance get them caught up. “It’s the more ‘exceptions’ that are brought in that causes more problems. Insurance companies wise up and hire an attorney,” he explained. Baxa also referenced that nearby Philippi had started billing, but shortly after, implemented a fire fee instead. In his opinion, it was likely because the billing was not working out for them.
Retired Fire Chief Mitch Tacy asked Loudin what the rate of collection is of those billed. “If you send 200 bills, you’ll probably get a collection of 100 of those, so about 50%,” Loudin confirmed. She added, “You pay a $25 fee a year. If someone has an incident at their home and it catches fire, there is lot more than $25 worth of services going into that. Right now, you’re collecting 0.” Tacy added that fighting insurance companies is a battle and a hassle. Loudin noted, “It does take work… It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Baxa cautioned Commissioners to be thoughtful and careful to not shift the mission of each fire department, as he’s concerned that these changes often shift the focus of why they’re there in the first place. In some reported instances, the focus shifts “to make as much money off the call and it takes focus away from the best and appropriate response,” he added.
Loudin did confirm Baxa and Tacy’s fears that it is an uphill battle that can create chaos amongst residents and fire departments. “When money is involved, that’s where the focus turns to,” she agreed. Commissioners Tenney and Sam Nolte added that they are exploring all information to see if there is an opportunity that can assist the fire departments in some way. “It is something we will need to look at more thoroughly and do more research,” Tenney expressed. Commissioners wanted to be clear that they are not in support of billing those who are paying their fire fees.
Baxa concluded, “EMS agencies are driven by reimbursement. How often do you have two EMS agencies working together well?” According to him, it rarely happens because it comes back to the almighty dollar. “We don’t want that to happen to the fire departments,” he insisted.
Commissioners will take this information and feedback into consideration as they make further decisions regarding the implementation of fire fees or a potential Fire Billing Ordinance.