​Keep Charlottesville’s rescue squad charge-free

The current policy keeps students and community members safe

In the more than 50 years that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, or CARS, has provided emergency medical transport and rescue services to local residents, the agency has not billed passengers for ambulance rides. This characteristic has distinguished our area's rescue squad — which is among the busiest in the nation with almost 8,000 yearly responses — from other agencies around the nation, including Albemarle County Fire and Rescue, which bills patients outside of the city.

Last year, Charlottesville’s City Council unanimously voted to allow CARS to bill passengers for ambulance rides to keep the option open in case funds run low. Emergency services rendered by CARS continue to be provided without charge, as donations and around 200 active volunteers have sustained the agency, but the option to bill passengers for cost recovery remains under consideration by the agency.

An emergency medical services agency that does not charge passengers is important to the city of Charlottesville. Under our current system, individuals in Charlottesville requiring emergency medical care do not need to worry about costs associated with transport to the emergency room. Within the University, where administrators have become chiefly invested in student safety, an emergency medical services agency that does not charge for transport is a critical safety resource. The Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention stresses on its website that there is no charge for services provided by CARS. Prior to Halloween this year, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent an email to all students instructing them to call 911 if presented with signs of alcohol overdose, reminding them that the rescue squad does not charge. The decision to call 911 for a friend who is unresponsive and needs immediate medical care should not be complicated by the cost of emergency medical services, which may total hundreds of dollars.

There is no formal relationship between CARS and the University, but much of the volunteer staffing comes from the student population. Haugh teaches an EMT course through the Nursing School that University students can take at CARS. Additionally, CARS volunteers staff events such as the Foxfield Races and this year’s Fourth-Year 5K.

Other agencies have opted to waive the fee for those who cannot afford to pay for transportation. Per Albemarle County Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston, county ambulances charge $450 to $750 for emergency treatment with an added fee of $13 per mile of transport. The county has operated with a “compassionate billing” policy whereby the agency seeks payment only from those with insurance coverage. CARS Chief Dayton Haugh has affirmed his agency’s commitment to a compassionate billing policy if it were to decide to bill passengers. Even under such a policy, the concern that those who can afford to pay will hesitate to seek care because of the large costs still remains. A situation in which an individual is unresponsive and his friend hesitates to call 911 because of uncertainty about the individual’s ability to pay is one we should avoid.

Increasing taxpayer support to the agency would help maintain a rescue squad that does not bill passengers. Albemarle County has made a general donation to all volunteer agencies, agreeing to send $116,300 to the squad in the current fiscal year, which began July 1. According to city spokeswoman Miriam Dickler, the agency has received no funding from the city of Charlottesville since at least 2008. Last year, Haugh told City Council that the agency never asked Charlottesville for funding. Establishing a revenue stream funded by city taxpayers may aid in keeping CARS charge-free to patients.

Providing professional emergency medical services through an agency that staffs itself almost entirely with volunteers while not billing patients is a point of pride for our city. It is a long-standing tradition that has helped to keep our community safe. In return, our community must do all it can to ensure the continuation of high-quality emergency medical services at no cost to patients.

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