Part of life is planning for the worst. But a plan available to all Pinellas County residents could keep you from digging deep into your wallet to pay for an ambulance ride if something bad happens.
The Sunstar FirstCare Ambulance Membership Plan has been around about 15 years and is accepting new members until March 31.
The membership isn't an insurance plan, but it functions like one. Fees are $45 for an individual and $70 for a family. The family plan covers all people related by blood or marriage who live in the same place.
For members, the plan pays the patient's insurance copayments and deductibles for any medically necessary transport in an ambulance. The member's insurance pays for the rest. If a member does not have insurance or Medicare, the plan provides a 20 percent discount. The plan has about 7,100 members, many of them elderly people who rely on Sunstar.
But those transports need to be medically necessary. That's defined in the membership plan contract as "a specific medical need for advanced life support, stretcher ambulance transportation to or from a medical facility for medical treatment." The transport must begin and end in Pinellas County.
Sunstar will file insurance paperwork. If the ride isn't medically necessary, the patient will be responsible for the entire fee, about $485.
"We certainly don't want people abusing it," said Amber Gilberti, administrative support supervisor with Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services.
For some people with chronic conditions, ambulance transport can get expensive.
"One of the ways we can help families is by offering information about this program and letting them decide," said Peggy Connelly, director of special care at Balmoral assisted living facility in Palm Harbor. She organized an information session for an Alzheimer's support group meeting next month. A few in the group are already enrolled in the ambulance plan.
"It's a great program to introduce them to," Connelly said. "It could help them save money."
If you aren't a member of the plan, you don't pay anything to cover for the people who are.
"The membership program is funded completely by enrollment fees," said Janice Metzger, finance manager for Pinellas County EMS.
It's the same with ambulance transports in general. Tax money does not pay for any ambulance service in Pinellas County; user fees do. Sunstar ambulances transport about 105,000 patients each year.
Even though the savings from just one trip a year usually pays for the membership fee, the plan isn't for everyone.
"There are some circumstances where membership is not beneficial, such as certain Medicaid patients for where insurance covers the entire bill" with no copays, Metzger said. "Those people are discouraged from joining."
For information, application forms
Call (727) 582-2008 or check online at www.pinellascounty.org/EMS/default.htm