Walla Walla ambulance

Firefighters pry open the door to a Ford Explorer after it rolled over at the corner of South Ninth Avenue and West Birch Street in Walla Walla in June 2016.

Starting in 2023, Walla Walla utility customers will pay an additional $12.65 per month, or nearly $152 per year, to help pay for ambulance services within the city, the Walla Walla City Council decided this week.

Residents eligible for Medicaid or whose household income is at or below 125% of the federal poverty line may be eligible for an exemption or discount for the monthly fee. All other ambulance transport and service fees were unaffected by Wednesday’s decision.

The added ambulance utility fee is projected to raise $1.5 million annually from approximately 10,128 utility accounts.

The additional revenue will offset a current $1.2 million per year deficit the city pays from its general fund to fund ambulance services. That deficit is expected to increase to $1.5 million by 2023, according to a report presented to the Council by Fire Chief Robert Yancey, who oversees both fire and ambulance services in the city.

“The city’s ambulance fund’s financial condition has been considerably weakened over the last few years,” Yancey said.

Currently, ambulance services account for around 80% of the fire department’s time and cost $8.3 million annually. Around $3.6 million is collected per year through local taxes, state funds and ambulance bills, leaving around $4.7 million of uncovered costs.

The new ambulance fee would cover around one-third of those remaining costs, with the rest still covered by the city’s general fund.

Council member Myron Huie was the sole vote against the utility fee in the Wednesday, Aug. 11, meeting.

“I think that the operation you run at the fire department and ambulance service is top notch,” Huie began. “But we’re looking at a fee of $12.65 per residential unit. That’s a relatively major expense for some households.”

Huie inquired about the possibility of alternative forms of revenue generation, including raising ambulance transport fees.

It would be difficult to cover revenue shortfalls by increasing transport fees, Yancey said Wednesday, as around 65% of all people transported by the ambulances are either Medicaid or Medicare patients. Those federal programs have hard ceilings to how much they will pay, ranging from 20% to 40% of the standard transport bills, Yancy said.

“For 65% of those calls, we can raise rates to $1 million a call, it won’t do anything,” Yancey said.

There are also a significant number of calls with no revenue whatsoever, Yancey added. In the vast majority of circumstances, the ambulance service can only bill a patient if they are transported.

If a patient receives some type of evaluation but refuses to be transported to the hospital, which some studies suggest can occur on up to 25% of all calls, those costs are absorbed by the ambulance service.

Emry Dinman can be reached at emrydinman@wwub.com.

Reporter covering agriculture, Walla Walla city and county government, and other topics.

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