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Volunteer Fire Dept.'s may soon be able to bill insurers

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By Sherese A. Gore
Capital News Service Writer
and
Tom Wilmoth
Editor

    RICHMOND – Two bills moving through the General Assembly would authorize volunteer fire departments to charge homeowners’ insurance policies after responding to fire-related emergencies.
    One measure is House Bill 1202, sponsored by Delegate Joseph Johnson, D-Abingdon. It unanimously passed the House on Wednesday.
    Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Tazewell, is sponsoring an identical proposal – Senate Bill 140. It unanimously passed the Senate on Friday.
    Amendments to both bills would require insurers to provide coverage for services provided by volunteer fire departments. The departments could not bill more than the limit of the policy holder’s coverage.
    Puckett, a 30-year member of the Lebanon Fire Department in Russell County, said some volunteer departments are facing severe financial problems.

    “All the volunteers are trying to do is cover some of their additional expenses that are not being covered by localities,” Puckett said.
    Bedford County Fire and Rescue Chief Jack Jones said there is some value to allowing the insurance companies to be billed, if a homeowner’s policey covers that service.
    “We would be remiss in not recovering that, if we’re entitled to it,” he said.
    Jones noted that other types of service—such as for a tow truck or an ambulance—are routinely charged and covered through insurance.
    Back in 2007, Bedford County passed an ordinance to allow insurance companies to be charged an EMS fee for those covered by insurance. But service is never denied; a charge is only collected if there is insurance coverage to pay it.
    “It’s not a mechanism to go after people who aren’t insured,” Jones said.
    The EMS fee brings in about $1 million a year to help fund local EMS agencies. Jones said that funding helps offset expenses, it helps fund the volunteers’ length of service award program, funds career staff for EMS, and helps pay for equipment and ambulances.
    He believes allowing fire departments to do the same could help provide funding as well.
    He said the EMS fee doesn’t penalize anyone. “This money was always left sitting on the table,” Jones said, prior to allowing for the fee to be charged.
    Jones said the current legislation regarding billing insurance companies for fire-related service is still a “work in progress” in that it’s short on details. He hopes the legislation will call for local governments to adopt an ordinance—similar to that with the EMS fees—so that the local government can assist and manage the collection.
    “I think the concept is great,” he said. “Many places do it.”
    Bedford County Fire and Rescue made a considerable effort to educate citizens back in 2007 when the collection of EMS fees from insurance companies was implemented. The same would likely be done, should the county begin collecting fees from insurance companies for fire services.
    At the end of the day, Jones said he wants the public to know it should call for help, if an emergency occurs. “Always call 911 if you have a fire,” he stressed.
    Volunteer fire departments, which rely on unpaid trained personnel, are often in rural areas or localities with limited resources. With increased fuel costs and fire equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, survival of these departments depends on a mixture of local and state funds as well as charitable contributions.
    “If it wasn’t for private donations, we could not operate for the full year,” said Chief Charlie Robertson of the Rocky Mount Fire Department in Franklin County.
    His sentiments were echoed by Ronald McClure, fire chief of the Dublin Fire Department in Pulaski County. His department relies on a mixture of paid and volunteer firefighters.
    “We do a fundraiser usually once a year and every other year, and we get some funding from the county and some from the town,” McClure said.
    Because of the economy, he said, donations to his department have dropped by a third.
    While volunteer departments have tried to collect from homeowners in the past, those attempts have been challenged by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli.
    In a 2011 opinion, Cuccinelli determined that state law does not allow volunteer fire departments to bill insurance companies.
    That’s why Puckett and Johnson submitted their legislation.
    “The purpose of the bill is to try to make fully legal what really has been happening for some time,” said David Bailey of David Bailey Associates, a lobbying firm that represents firefighters at the General Assembly.
    Puckett said he wants to assure homeowners that the purpose of the legislation is not to discourage them from calling their local departments for fear of being billed.
    “Most volunteer fire departments are saying, ‘Look, we’re here doing this voluntarily, and if you call us, we’re coming,’ ” he said.