Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Chief Mark Dunleavy answers questions at the FRNCA meeting Tuesday night. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps is receiving backlash from residents in its service area who say they are being improperly billed by the ambulance corps’ third-party billing company. But the ambulance chief said the issue can be easily resolved and that residents of the district don’t have to pay for the service.

Members of FNVA discussed the problem during the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association meeting Tuesday evening, where residents complained about being billed for ambulance services.

FNVA Chief Mark Dunleavy said the corps started third-party billing to collect revenue for the district from insurance providers. “[I]t’s successful, generates a decent amount of revenue to help offset the taxpayers for our annual budget,” he said. 

The third-party billing company, Professional Ambulance Billing of Williamsville, New York, bills people’s insurance after an ambulance ride to the hospital, he said. If residents do not have insurance or their insurance company did not cover the whole cost, they do not have to pay the balance because they are already taxpayers in the ambulance district, he said.

Dunleavy said residents should call the ambulance corps if they keep receiving bills from the billing company, so FMVA can communicate with the company and tell them to waive the rest of the cost. He said there is no legal way for the third-party billing service to only bill non-residents and communication with the FRVA is the bests solution to the problem.

But some residents said continuously receiving bills in the mail may worry residents who don’t know about the system, pressuring them to pay — and in some cases deterring them from calling an ambulance when they need it. 

Lisa Gould, left, told town officials and members of the ambulance corps that residents hesitate to call an ambulance because of bills they may be obligated to pay. Photo: Alek Lewis

Lisa Gould said she received bills for five months for her husband’s ambulance ride. She knew not to pay because she worked in hospital billing, she said, but others don’t have the same knowledge.

“There’s gonna be a lot of people in the community who will, because they receive this bill every month, [think] that they were, you know, responsible for the balance,” Gould said. 

She said even after she contacted FNVA to resolve the issue, she still received a bill in the mail the month after, disputing Dunleavy’s statements that contacting the ambulance company would solve the issue.

“There’s a huge disconnect between what the ambulance company’s intentions are and what this company is doing,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

“If you can’t get the billing company to behave the way, or do business the way the community wants it done, then find a new billing company or find another way to do this,” she said. 

She also questioned Dunleavy on whether FNVA has received money from residents who paid when billed by the company over the last few years.

“There’s got to be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in the community who have paid these balances thinking, ‘Oh, I guess I’m responsible for this, and I’m going to do the right thing and pay it.’ What happens to them?,” she said. 

Dunleavy said the billing company deposits the money billed into the district account. He said he will meet with the ambulance district treasurer to find out how many residents submitted personal checks to cover the balance for the bills.  

Gould said her husband, who has a chronic health condition, has asked her to drive him to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance because of the stress from being billed and the process to resolve the issue. 

“He will not call an ambulance,” she said. “And I guarantee you, there are a lot of people who have paid these bills who are thinking, ‘yeah, I can’t afford to call an ambulance. I can’t afford it.’”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he and the Town Board wanted to avoid that type of thinking from residents, and only agreed with the plan if the third-party billing company hired was not predatory in their methods to collect bills. 

He said the billing service is necessary for supplementing the budget of the ambulance district, since the area has a smaller number of properties and a lot of open space, compared to other districts in Southampton.

“So when costs go up, you guys pay more on a per-person basis for ambulance than really any other area because there’s not a lot of people and the cost of running the ambulance is pretty fixed,” he said. Getting rid of the service would mean raising taxes on the district annually at a higher rate, he said.

Dunleavy said the billing generates from $200,000 to $250,000 a year. Originally it was estimated it would bring in around $500,000, he said. The district currently carries a $1.9 million deficit on unpaid ambulance bills.

Schneiderman said the program was originally pitched to the town by ex-chief Ronnie Hintze as a way to collect money on car accidents the ambulance responded to on busy roads. He asked Dunleavy if the ambulance corps can only bill for motor vehicle accidents. Dunleavy said that he would look into it, but it would likely decrease the revenue from third-party billing.

Dunleavy said the ambulance corps mailed flyers to all homes in the district when the third-party billing launched in early 2018 “stating to call us before they even think about calling the billing company. It’s so we can get ahead of it,” he said.

Some residents, including Gould, said they never received the flyers. The group of ambulance representatives and residents agreed that the issue needs more awareness, and will partner to put up fliers and do another mailer to spread the word around the ambulance district.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.