Pass bill to rescue fire departments

It’s hard to find a good reason why volunteer fire departments should not be able to recoup the cost of ambulance services from a patient’s insurance provider, Medicaid or Medicare.

New York is the only state in the nation that doesn’t let fire departments bill insurers for the cost of providing emergency medical care. Under current law, only volunteer ambulance corps and private ambulance companies can do so.

That’s why the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department had to spin off its rescue squad into a separate organization a few years ago. The financial burden was draining the fire department and starving its ambulance service, which couldn’t afford to pay EMTs and had to rely on volunteers.

Sponsors of the legislation allowing volunteers departments to bill insurers without having to create emergency medical corps say it would improve medical care for New Yorkers.

Finding volunteers to respond to rescue calls is only one challenge volunteer fire departments face. It costs money to move that equipment — and that money has to come from somewhere. It makes sense that some of those costs be paid by insurers or social safety net programs that already exist. Allowing volunteer fire departments to recoup some of their costs without jumping through the administrative and legal hurdles of creating new volunteer ambulance corps could financially strengthen volunteer fire departments while also helping strengthen emergency response in rural areas.

In Essex County, small-town emergency medical services drop so many calls that the county is looking into a county-wide shared EMS system. It’s trying out the notion with a pilot program for several towns where the local rescue squad has to drop a lot of calls, including Wilmington.

Meanwhile, local people want to get into the EMS field. North Country Community College started an emergency medical technician program, and it’s flush with students — great news for the college and for anyone who needs medical care.

But many fire departments can’t afford to hire those graduates, even if they need them to meet demand, because they don’t have the revenue and can’t get much more from taxpayers.

New York needs to give them some flexibility.

Legislators have a lot on their plates before the end of the legislative session, but this bill is important and should be an easy decision to pass.

Then next session, maybe they can pass a bill to let towns have fire departments, instead of just villages and cities and special fire districts. Again, there’s no good reason not to have this flexibility.