Ambulances from several cities and towns flash their lights down Prairie Center Parkway following Smith's family.
Photo by Belen Ward
Thornton could begin to gradually raise ambulance fees based on a City Council discussion at the May 16 planning session.
Interim Fire Chief Stephan Kelley asked the council to approve increased rates the city charges for emergency response and transport in a city ambulance. Kelley said the last time rates were raised was in 2008. Compared to Westminster and North Metro, rates in Thornton are cheaper. Thornton currently charges $810 for all emergency transport services.
The new plan would charge a fee based on different levels of life support needed during ambulance transport. The most basic level would charge insurance $987. The rates for more advanced levels of life support – ASL1 and ASL2 – would be set at $1,164 and $1,287, respectively.
The increased fees would impact those with private insurance. Medicare and Medicaid have set rates for ambulance fees, and Kelley said the change would affect about 17% of users.
The department costs $7.6 million for five medic units, administrative staff, supplies and services. Some of that is subsidized by the transport fees. The fees brought in $4.3 million in 2021, with $2.7 million coming from the fees and the rest from Medicaid supplemental pay.
There are about 46 personnel in the department.
Kelly also said that if a patient is transported to a hospital and the hospital says they demonstrate financial hardship, the same steps will be followed for their ambulance bill. That may be anything between a 50% to 100% reduction in the bill. That happened 23 times in 2022.
Phasing fees considered
City Councilor David Acunto asked if a phase-in approach would be possible and if there can be a mechanism to raise the rates accordingly each year.
“I don't want to get into a situation where if we kick it down the line and now it’s 2030 and some services are degrading (and then need to raise rates substantially,)” Acunto said.
City Councilor Julia Marvin said she wouldn’t be supporting the increase in fees, citing high deductibles for many families.
City Councilor Adam Matkowsky noted that the base rate is high, even if someone that has a minor injury is served.
“Whether they go 50 miles or 10 miles, they’re getting hit over the head (with the fee,)” he said.
Kelley said the practice of a base rate is true in a lot of healthcare situations, and it’s a conversation for the broader healthcare system.
City Councilor Tony Unrein asked if unpaid bills are sent to collections. Kelley said they work with patients with financial hardship but said a portion of the bills are sent to collections.
Unrein also asked if someone is treated on-site but isn't transported if they are charged. Kelley said if someone is treated but does not ride in the ambulance, they receive a treatment and release fee.