Use an ambulance, don't pay the bill and face criminal charges. That is what's happening in one Westmoreland County community.
EMS companies all over the area are facing huge debts. Rescue 14 in Adamsburg in Westmoreland County is no different. But the district attorney has signed off on its new groundbreaking method of bill collecting. So far, it's working and the unit has collected thousands of dollars.
Over the years, Rescue 14 Operations Manager Don Thoma tried to get money from patients in civil court, but he said it took too much time and too much money. He came up with the idea to file criminal complaints for theft against them after he heard of another ambulance company doing it.
Target 11's Rick Earle asked him if he ever feels bad about filing charges.
"It's not like I don't care," Thoma said. "It bothers me that they don't care."
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Thoma said he only pursues patients who get insurance checks directly from Highmark insurance, but don't turn that money over to Rescue 14.
"If you went to a barber and got a haircut, or if you went to the store to buy some stuff, and you walked out without paying, what happens? They call police and they pick you up," Thoma said.
Thoma sends out three letters demanding payment. If those letters are ignored, he files charges. He said he's filing charges against nearly 30 people in the past year. He believes some are using the system, like one patient who would call for an ambulance near Christmas time.
"Every year about this time, she would call two or three times, collect her $400, and buy Christmas presents," Thoma added. "We know they're abusing the system. We know they're using the money, in some cases. We know they're not being truthful about why they're calling an ambulance."
Highmark declined to go on camera and sent a statement. It read, in part, "non-contracted out-of-network providers, like Rescue 14, are not paid directly because we do not have appropriate contractual protections.....Ambulance providers deserve to be paid for their services rendered. We believe our members should pay their bills."
Thoma told Earle Highmark will pay Rescue 14 directly, but at a lower rate. He said that's a losing proposition.
"When you dial 911, we have to go, regardless of what insurance you have. That's not fair, and I said all you are doing is putting little ambulance services out of business," Thoma said.
Thoma said, when threatened with theft charges, most patients agree to either pay or to start a payment plan. Earle reached out to several patients charged, but none would talk on camera. Still, some claim they never received letters from Rescue 14, and didn't realize they owed the ambulance company money.
So far, Rescue 14 has collected $20,000.
"We will continue to do it," Thoma said. "(We could collect) anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a year. That is almost two months wages."
Several patients with charges have refused to show up for court hearings. The district attorney has issued arrest warrants for them.
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