Credit: Howard Schnapp

Several Long Island elected officials and volunteer fire service leaders expressed support Thursday for legislation that would allow fire departments to bill insurance companies and government benefits programs for emergency medical services.

Tom McDonough, former chief of the Port Washington Fire Department, said the measure would generate needed revenue — and ultimately save lives.

Many departments are facing tight budgets as well as an increase in medical response calls, McDonough said during a news conference Thursday at the Port Washington Fire Department.

Some departments have been forced to cut back or eliminate EMS services. If that trend continues, there could be longer response times during medical emergencies, he said. His department has felt budget pressures due to a decline in volunteers that has forced it to hire professional paramedics.

“As long as we keep these ambulances community-based, we’re saving lives,” said McDonough, also a committee vice chairman with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York.

The measure could bring in upward of $700,000 a year to the Port Washington department, which is handling about twice as many medical responses than fire calls, officials said.

Under the proposed legislation, fire departments would bill insurance companies and government benefits programs — not the people receiving services, said Jerry DeLuca, executive director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

But opponents say the bill, which has languished in the State Legislature for years, puts a price on a service Island residents are already paying for with property taxes and could result in higher insurance premiums.

State Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) said fire departments are the only emergency medical service prohibited from billing for their services. Private EMS firms and police and hospital EMS providers can submit bills, she said.

“This is wrong and needs to change,” she said.

Proponents say the bill, which is under committee review in the Senate and Assembly, will not increase taxes. They reject the idea that the measure could prompt insurance companies to raise premiums or increase the financial burden on taxpayer-funded Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Many health insurance plans already cover ambulance services, so “they’re already paying for it,” DeLuca said.

Assemb. Anthony D’Urso (D-Port Washington) said the great majority of departments on Long Island are staffed by volunteers. Pointing out their sacrifices — “all the meals you miss, all the occasions you should be with your children” — he said it’s time for the state to back them on this issue.

The bill is opposed by the United New York Ambulance Network, the trade organization for private ambulance operators.

Alan Lewis, the group’s governmental affairs chairman, said the plan threatens certain Medicare payments for EMS for people in about 20 counties that the federal government has designated as rural, most of them upstate.

He said Medicare will not pay for EMS in instances when fire departments work with private firms that provide advanced life-support services.

DeLuca, of the fire chiefs association, said the bill changes the way Medicare reimbursements are paid, but does not eliminate any benefits.

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