Sunday, March 2, 2008


From the Lockport Union Sun and Journal


TRI-TOWN: End of the emergency ride
By Bill Wolcott

For 39 years, Tri-Town Ambulance of Gasport offered a plan to help residents who needed an emergency ride. For an annual $40 donation, Tri-Town would pick up the deductibles that insurance did not pay. In 2001, the State Insurance Department concluded Tri-Town’s plan was a health insurance program and must comply with all the regulations.

“There’s a lot of them,” said Eric Dodge, a Middleport volunteer fireman who works for MED/EX Billing Inc. “To me, it’s another case of excessive regulations and how difficult it is to do business in New York state.” Several state volunteer ambulance services were affected.

Tri-Town, which has 45 volunteer members, is not-for-profit and is not funded by taxpayer money. It serves the Towns of Royalton, Hartland and Lockport. Legal fees to get Tri-Town in compliance with insurance regulations would be cost-prohibitive.

Tri-Town has decided to phase out its program, and last week mailed a letter to the community which read: “We can no longer offer this program. The State of New York Insurance Department states that we are offering an insurance plan and are not licensed to do so.”

State Sen. James Seward, chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee, thinks that the plan offered by Tri-Town and other state ambulance companies made perfect sense. He wants to know if the insurance department declared the programs invalid or if the programs are in violation of state law. The Republican from Oneonta likened it to a situation where churches were stopped from offering a membership program that helped members with medical expenses.“They call it an insurance plan; we think it’s a stretch,” said Duncan Davie, a Seward spokesman. “It’s a difficult situation.”

Some residents simply considered the $40 fee a donation to Tri-Town, according to Cheryl Confer, who has been president for eight years. Some are “frequent flyers,” residents who have medical conditions and need the emergency service with some regularity. Tri-Town is frequently called out for senior citizens at Absolut of Gasport, formerly The Waters. “I feel bad for people in community who don’t have insurance,” said Confer, who is a Emergency Medical Technician. “They are people who can’t afford this.” Confer said she has been stopped by people in the streets who are appalled with the state ruling. Going through the legal hoops would be too costly, she said.“

I don’t understand the state. How can they construe this as an insurance policy?” said Suzanne Struckmann, who has had to use Tri-Town in emergencies for herself and neighbors. “The situation in New York state is so burdensome, with all the taxes. Where are we going to get the funding to do this? Who’s going to support these volunteer groups.”

Families have participated for years and volunteers are life members. Unlike the volunteer fire departments, ambulance companies get no public funding. There are no paid employees. The Tri-Town subscription drive raises about $30,000 annually. The cost of a ride is $600 to $850.

“I’m very disgusted about this and wonder where Sen. Maziarz is,” said Lucille Britt, 70, who served as a commissioner of elections in Niagara County for 11 years. “He’s always looking for issues to help the elderly. I wonder where he is on this issue. I want this organization to stay.

“I would clearly go for bat for them,” said Maziarz who had not been made aware of the problem. The senator from the 62nd district said he would work for a change in the state insurance department. If it needs a change the law to make the program acceptable and in compliance, he would introduce legislation.

Several volunteer ambulance service companies in the Syracuse area have been affected by the state regulations, as well. Tri-Community in Sanborn, concerned with liability, has dropped its program and notified the fire companies. Tri-Community, which serves Wheatfield and the fire districts of Pekin and Sanborn, is the busiest ambulance service in the county, with 1,212 calls last year.

“It has not adversely affected us because of volume,” said Tri-Community president Robin Zastrow. Tri-Community conducts a donation drive. Its billing is the same across the board for everyone, Zastrow said. The volunteer company did want to avoid liability and did not want to fight the law.

The State Ambulance Association is lobbying to have the regulation changed.“I have great concern with the state laws,” said Struckmann, a registered nurse who looks after elderly neighbors. “Who’s going to support these volunteer groups?”