CLEARWATER — Less than two weeks after county commissioners hiked the property tax rate to pay for the emergency medical services system by 46 percent, County Administrator Bob LaSala announced Tuesday he will also increase ambulance fees.
The increased tax rate and the higher ambulance fees both go into effect Saturday.
The fee increase will boost the cost of an ambulance ride by 3.3 percent. A basic ambulance trip will rise from $521.81 per person to $539.03. The cost for mileage will also go up from $11.79 a mile to $12.18 a mile. Using 5 miles as the average length of an ambulance trip, the total cost for an average emergency ride in a Sunstar ambulance will go from $580.76 to $599.93.
LaSala said the change will bring an extra $500,000 into Pinellas' financially strapped EMS system. He said the funds will be used to augment the EMS reserve fund, which has a balance of about $19.4 million. The system has an overall budget of about $106 million for the coming fiscal year.
Not only do the higher fees come on top of an increase in property taxes, but they come a year after the county hiked ambulance rates by 10.15 percent.
LaSala is pushing a plan to reduce the money going to the county's 18 fire departments that provide first-response EMS service. Under the current EMS system, firefighter/paramedics come first to most emergency medical calls. A Sunstar Paramedics ambulance arrives later and takes the patient to the hospital. The county contracts with Paramedics Plus, a Texas-based, for-profit company to run the Sunstar ambulance service. Last year, Paramedics Plus had 137,231 emergency and non-emergency transports as Sunstar.
From those transports, the county brought in about $43.7 million from Medicare and Medicaid, which are funded by federal and state taxes and fees, and private insurance. Of that, the county paid about $34.9 million to Paramedics Plus.
LaSala announced his decision to increase ambulance costs during Tuesday's County Commission meeting. LaSala said county policy gives him the authority to raise fees when the medical consumer price index goes up but that he wanted to let commissioners know he would do so. LaSala also told them he would not raise the rates if the commission did not want the increase.
Some commissioners were upset with the lack of notice.
"It's not a good way for us to make policy although I understand this is your authority," Nancy Bostock said. LaSala should give people more notice so Pinellas residents and commissioners have a chance to comment, she said.
Norm Roche suggested postponing the increase until commissioners had a chance to consider the move. "I do object to this," he said.
But commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala defended LaSala, saying, "In Bob's defense, he and I talked about this. This is a courtesy so you know the ambulance rates will be increased. … He has the authority to do it. … Why do we want to get wrapped around this axle?"
Roche made a motion to hold off on the increases, but got no second. Ken Welch moved to acknowledge the increases. Roche was the sole vote against the motion.