Fire chiefs gather in support of Montgomery ambulance fee

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 8:02 PM

Fire chiefs from across the Washington region joined their struggling Montgomery County counterpart, Chief Richard Bowers, in a District training center Thursday to provide uniformed backup for Bowers's plea to baffled voters back home: Don't fear the ambulance fee.

"There are quite a lot of rumors and innuendos as to what would happen," said District Fire Chief Dennis Rubin. The actual result, Rubin said, is that the city collects nearly $22 million in much-needed revenue and gets fewer than one complaint for every 1,000 bills that go out.

The chiefs from the District, Prince George's County, Fairfax County and top fire officials from other area communities also said fears voiced by opponents - primarily that the fee would discourage some from calling 911 - had not been borne out by their experience.

"We've seen no degradation of the number" of emergency medical services calls, Stafford County Fire Chief J. Robert "Rob" Brown Jr. said, adding that the international group of fire chiefs he's involved with strongly recommends adoption of billing for ambulance service.

But the fight over the fee in Montgomery has pitted the county's volunteer firefighters and other critics against career fire officials, a majority of county council members and state legislators from Montgomery, and even the League of Women Voters. It has devolved into a test of wills that no group of fire chiefs can extinguish leading up to Nov. 2, when county voters will decide whether to approve the fee.

"It makes me a little sick," said Eric Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, who attended the session and afterward called it "a little love fest of people outside Montgomery County who won't pay the tax."

Such characterizations were precisely what Bowers was seeking to get beyond Thursday, and that led him to e-mail his colleagues for backup.

"No county resident will have to pay a dime. No county resident will ever have to pay a nickel or a penny," Bowers said.

Indeed, Montgomery's approach is more generous than in some neighboring jurisdictions.

In Montgomery, residents won't get a bill, regardless of whether they have insurance, Bowers and other officials said. A county vendor will send the bills directly to insurance companies. The county will also cover co-pays and handle any disputes, officials said.

Program critics have broader objections based on political philosophy, experience and concerns that the program could change over time.

"The first question I get is, 'How much is this going to cost me?' Always. I'd like to be able to say, 'Nothing,' " Bernard said. For "core government functions - police, fire, rescue - there should be no barriers. None."

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