Healthy Numbers

Medicare reimbursement rates for ambulance providers in Chautauqua County will hold the line thanks to a push by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

The New York Democrat announced he has secured an additional year of Medicare investments for emergency medical service providers in the state. Translation: those providing emergency care will not lose out on critical revenue necessary to operate.

A 2007 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that ambulance providers on average are reimbursed 6 percent less than what it costs to treat a Medicare patient. Schumer’s legislation, tucked inside Congress’ “fiscal cliff” deal last week, will ensure further reimbursements for Medicare treatment aren’t lost.

“I fought to keep this provision in the ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations to ensure that our ambulances can continue to serve New York’s rural communities where they literally make the difference between life and death,” Schumer said.

“Time and time again I’ve worked to make sure that our ambulances are properly and fairly reimbursed for their services, and (this) news is a major victory for the emergency medical technicians who work so long and so hard to keep us safe,” he said.

For area ambulance providers, sustaining the reimbursement rate for treating Medicare patients has become an annual wait-and-see game with the federal government.

“This is not anything new. They have been extending these rates on a yearly basis,” said David Thomas, WCA Services executive director.

“Everybody would have been affected. Health care is not a highly profitable industry. That’s why these extensions have been lobbied hard.”

WCA Services operates Alstar Ambulance out of Jamestown and Dunkirk.

Keith Ahlstrom, fire chief for the city of Dunkirk Fire Department, also was happy to see the rates retained. “If we would have lost that additional (reimbursement) it would have been a substantial reduction for us,” Ahlstrom said. “So we were very happy to see this.”

Dunkirk’s EMS division, which began billing in 2011, responded to 1,500 calls last year, nearly half of which resulted in an ambulance transport. A large number of those transports involved patients relying on Medicare, Ahlstrom said.

“We already had planned for those rates to be there in the budget, so it’s a good thing this was passed,” the Dunkirk fire chief said.

Meanwhile, Thomas said WCA Services is turning to technology to ensure its operations are running as cost-effective as possible. That includes keeping track of ambulances through GPS to effectively dispatch emergency calls.

“It’s not like we can simply charge more to make up for a loss,” Thomas said, noting Medicare and Medicaid rates are set by the government.

Cutting back on personnel isn’t an option either.

“We still have to serve. That need for us is still there,” Thomas said. “It’s just going to come down to solid planning and solid forecasting. We’re using a lot of technology.”