The union representing Spokane firefighters issued a statement Tuesday calling for an external investigation into the relationship between American Medical Response and the Spokane Fire Department administration.
The demand from Firefighters Local 29 came one week after AMR, which has the exclusive contract to provide ambulance services in the city of Spokane, admitted it overbilled city residents $320,689 in the past two years and promised immediate refunds. Other AMR patients living outside the city are not governed by the contract and won’t receive refunds.
Most of the overbilling was related to patients, their insurance or Medicare being charged for more-expensive “advanced life support” services when only “basic life support” services were needed.
AMR executive Randy Strozyk blamed the overbilling on a bookkeeping oversight that occurred when billing functions were transferred from Spokane to Seattle.
Greg Borg, president of the firefighters local, said Tuesday the union “has been pressing the administration to address this issue for five years, with little or no response.”
“We want to make sure every citizen in Spokane gets the correct refund they are owed, and the proper penalties are levied against AMR,” Borg said.
It will now be up to the City Council to decide how large a fine to seek against AMR. After three violations, each fine is $5,000. Fire Chief Bobby Williams said it will be a “legal question” whether the over-billing spotted in the examination of 19,000 bills will be viewed as one collective violation or separate instances.
The fire chief “has known since 2001 about billing issues and contract violations by AMR, but he did nothing with the information we provided to him, until we put pressure on at City Hall,” Borg said.
With the recent support of some City Council members “interested in doing what is best for the citizens of Spokane, the firefighters union has made headway in bringing the issues to the attention of the public,” Borg said.
Williams couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
The City Council’s Public Safety Committee formed a subcommittee late last year to examine the contract that gives AMR the exclusive right to provide ambulance service within the city of Spokane through 2007.
The subcommittee specifically was interested in overcharging of patients, mileage charges and resupply of AMR ambulances by fire crews without detailed inventory procedures.
At a meeting of the Public Safety Committee last week, Williams disclosed publicly for the first time that an audit had been initiated last year by AMR at his request. The AMR contract is administrated by Rich Kness, the Fire Department’s emergency services chief. AMR, in turn, pays the Fire Department $25,000 a month to administer the contract.
At least two City Council members have said they favor stripping the Fire Department from administering the AMR contract, and transferring that watchdog function to another branch of city government.
Firefighters union representative Bill Jackman, who has tracked the AMR contract, said the examination of AMR’s billing wasn’t really an audit but a bookkeeping review known in the business as an “agreed-upon procedures report.”
“The Fire Department administration presented the City Council with what they called an audit, but it was really only a very watered-down accounting report,” Jackman said as part of Tuesday’s statement from the firefighters union.
“When they did this, it was the equivalent of saying, ‘The dog ate my homework,’ ” Jackman said.
“There was no reason for the overbilling, and there was no reason that the Fire Department dropped the ball in not catching this,” Jackman said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.