HUNTINGTON BEACH : Council Approves Paramedics' Fees

In an effort to improve the efficiency of the city's paramedic operations, the City Council has agreed to charge for emergency-care services.

Beginning July 1, the city for the first time will collect paramedic service fees through direct billing of patients and the establishment of voluntary membership fees to, in effect, double the size of the operation.

Under the new "FireMed" program, the city will charge from $180 to more than $300 for each paramedic response, to be paid by the patient and any applicable insurance. City residents or businesses can limit their potential paramedic and related ambulance charges by joining the voluntary membership program and paying a flat annual rate.

To become members, residents would pay $36 per year--a $6 fee would be added to their utility bills every other month--to exempt them from footing the brunt of direct paramedic costs. All additional charges for members would be billed to applicable insurance programs.

Businesses could participate in the membership program by paying $36 a year for every 10 employees, or a maximum of $720. Qualifying low-income residents, determined by federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines, could become members by paying $18 annually.

City fire administrators proposed the program, modeled after those in Anaheim, Fullerton, Orange and Santa Ana, in response to a recent study that revealed relatively poor paramedic response times in Huntington Beach.

According to the study, the city operates the smallest paramedic program per capita in Orange County. As a result, in 45% of cases, the paramedics do not reach the trauma scene within five minutes. Fire officials aim to cut that rate to 20%. According to a study prepared by Fire Chief Raymond C. Picard, for each minute the victim of a severe heart attack is left unattended, the victim's chances of survival decrease 7%.

Picard said he expects his department can achieve its reduced response-time goal by expanding the operation from two to four paramedic stations, each to be served by one emergency van.

The total estimated cost of the expansion, including new personnel and equipment, is $425,000, according to a Fire Department administrative report. If 30% of the city's utility customers become members--the approximate participation rate in Anaheim, Fullerton and Orange--the city would recover the expansion costs within two years, with additional revenue for future improvements, the report says.

The program would break even with a 20% participation rate, Picard said. More importantly, he said, by charging for the services, the city for the first time will be able to collect money from insurance companies and government health agencies for the operation.

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