Facing budget gap, Princeton squad to bill for services

Move taken amid decline in donor giving

By: David Campbell
   For the first time in its history, the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, seeking to cover its costs amid declining donor giving, will begin billing for services as of Jan. 1.
   Under the program, a patient’s insurance company will be charged a flat rate of $550 for every trip to a hospital. The fee is the same regardless of the services provided. The squad has retained Allentown, Pa.-based billing company Ambulance Reimbursement Systems Inc. to process payments from insurers.
   Squad President Mark Freda said Tuesday that no patient would be denied transport or services if they are uninsured or unable to pay. He said the squad has no intention of sending creditors after those who have not paid for services rendered.
   "Ninety-nine percent of the time it will be the insurance companies that will be paying for this," Mr. Freda said. "We will not use collection agencies, and we won’t hound people. If someone doesn’t have the means to pay, we’re not going to pursue it — we will write it off."
   The First Aid Squad has about 50 to 60 volunteer members, with two paid full-time professionals, and four or five per-diem workers that sometimes fill in for the full-time staffers.
   Its total annual budget is roughly $500,000, Mr. Freda said. The Princetons contribute about $150,000 annually, which covers the salaries and benefits of the two full-time workers.
   The squad has relied on its annual fund drive to raise the remaining $350,000, which covers costs for facilities, equipment and related operating expenses, he said.
   However, over the past five years, the annual drive has raised an average of about $160,000 — representing a 23 percent decline in the number of donors over five years, and less than half the money needed to cover operating costs each year.
   To make up the difference, the squad has been spending off its monetary reserves "at an alarming rate," Mr. Freda said.
   Meanwhile, at a time when costs and call volumes are on the rise, capital projects have gone under-funded, he said.
   For example, the squad’s current facility at Harrison Street and Clearview Avenue, built nearly 50 years ago for two ambulances and a rescue truck, needs to be replaced. It is too small to accommodate the squad’s current eight vehicles and many personnel, squad officials said.
   Mr. Freda said the decision to switch over from providing services free of charge to the new third-party billing system has been two years in the making, and the outcome of many meetings with elected officials, staff and community members in Princeton.
   He claimed that the greatest resistance to the new program came from within the squad itself, noting, "The financial reality in the end left us no choice."
   Mr. Freda could not provide data on the number of first aid squads in the country that are now billing for services. He said the practice is not new in New Jersey but is more common elsewhere, noting that the Garden State has had the largest volunteer system nationwide for decades.
   "It’s something more first aid squads are turning to every day," Mr. Freda said of third-party billing. "It’s the reality of running a first aid squad these days."
   Borough and township officials interviewed this week were supportive of the new program.
   "There is a well-established marketplace where people do charge for delivery of medical services of all variety," borough Councilman David Goldfarb said.
   "They recognize that in many cases they can collect from insurers, and patients won’t be charged out of pocket," he continued. "Their concern has always been their contributions will fall off if they charge for services."
   Squad Chief Greg Paulson said the organization hopes to educate the public it serves — many who are from outside Princeton who aren’t asked to donate in the yearly fund drive, he said — about the continued need for charitable giving and why billing is also necessary.
   Borough Councilwoman Peggy Karcher said she does not object to the squad charging for services provided that those who can’t pay are not adversely impacted.
   "I am favorable to this," she said. "I don’t think anybody should hesitate before they pick up the phone and call for emergency services — that they won’t be able to pay, or that they’ll be hit with a bill that will have a huge impact on their lives."
   Township Deputy Mayor Bernard Miller said: "I think it’s something the first aid squad has to do to remain solvent. I’m supportive of what they’re planning to do."