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November 7, 2011
Better billing may heal Tenn. ambulance service
By Ben Benton
SEQUATCHIE, Tenn. — Sequatchie County's new ambulance service director says a number of large and small changes should keep the operation afloat and make it self-sustaining.
The biggest immediate issues are to catch up billing and update Medicare paperwork to get paid for eligible bills, director Marty Gipson said. Ambulance staff now must file transport reports for billing by the end of their shifts, which keeps paperwork up to date, he said.
"Last month, Medicare dropped us a check for $72,000," Gipson said.
"We've been averaging about $6,000 to $7,000 a week just from private insurances and people coming in and paying on their bills," he said of recent collections.
"Our fund balance is about $58,000 to $60,000, so we're staying in the black. That's the good thing," he said.
The county ambulance service has struggled for a half decade or more, according newspaper archives. County commissioners over the last five years or so have repeatedly transferred tens of thousands of dollars into the service to keep ambulances on the road.
Gipson said some other changes include a $50 charge to people who call for an ambulance then refuse transport, which will help cover fuel and labor costs for those calls. Also, a new credit card system will allow patients to pay their bills more easily. Jail inmates will now pay for their own ambulance transport from a commissary fund at the Justice Center, and the Sequatchie service is teaming up with neighboring counties to cut costs of medical supplies, he said.
Ambulance service Capt. Rusty Cheatham said the department has evolved and grown since he came on board 13 years ago.
"Then, we ran one 12-hour truck during the day and one 12-hour truck during the night," Cheatham said.
The department now has a 24-hour truck bolstered by a 10-hour daytime truck and a backup crew on 24-hour standby to man the service's third truck if the need arises, he said.
Paul Powell, county commissioner and budget committee chairman, said the ambulance service should finally gain some firm footing with a good billing system.
"It's doing fantastic compared with what it's done in the past," Powell said.
The service's short-term performance should be good and long-term expectations are high "as long as there are no changes in Medicare or Medicaid," he said.
The ambulance service should now be "able to carry its own load," he said.