Windham officials will decide tonight whether to write off $224,125 in unpaid bills for ambulance service. It would be the second time since 2006 that the Town Council has cleared the books of neglected accounts, totaling nearly $500,000.

As it tries to maintain services with declining revenue, the council also is considering hiring a collection agency to cut down on unpaid fees in the future. It’s a step that many towns have already taken.

The uncollected fees are owed by nearly 500 people who have not made payments on their bills since July. Many of the accounts date to 2000 and some go back as far as 1998, said Brian Wolcott, the town’s finance director.

He said the decline in state aid and excise tax revenue has forced the town to capitalize on opportunities to generate revenue. The proposal to hire a collection agency, he said, is long overdue.

“These are revenues that are rightly owed to the town of Windham,” Wolcott said. “These are legitimate billings and we need to do a better job of getting those revenues to the town.”

Tonight’s council meeting will begin at 7 at Town Hall.

Fire Chief Charlie Hammond said his department makes about 1,600 rescue calls a year. On those calls, an estimated 85 percent to 95 percent of the patients are taken to hospitals, which triggers a mileage fee.

Hammond said the uncollected fees could have been used to buy a top-of-the-line rescue vehicle or help the town offset expenses in other departments.

“We provided the service to the people and pay the wages to the people to treat them,” Hammond said. “We have purchased the rescue units and supplies and received no financial payment for the services we provided.”

A basic call, perhaps for someone with the flu or a broken arm who is taken to a hospital, would cost the patient about $400 to $450. A patient experiencing a life-threatening emergency, such as a heart attack, would be billed $600 to $900, Wolcott said.

The town has a contract with Medical Reimbursement Services in Windham to bill insurance companies and collect any unpaid fees.

Company Vice President Shawn McPherson said patients who don’t have health insurance can make payments of as little as $5 a month toward ambulance fees. If patients don’t respond after receiving six billing statements, the company sends a hardship request form to relieve them of their debt.

McPherson said many people ignore the company’s mailings, and Medical Reimbursement Services doesn’t act as a collection agency.

“I’m not as sympathetic to people who do not communicate and tell us what is going on,” Hammond said. “We have the relief forms and the 44 cents to mail it to us.”

In recent years, communities across Maine have become more aggressive in collecting unpaid fees. Medical Reimbursement Services provides billing for 35 towns and private ambulance services across the state. The number using collection agencies has grown from about five to 20 in the past five years.

“Towns are looking to capture all the money that is out there,” McPherson said.

Among them are Standish, Limington, Buxton and Raymond.

Limington Selectman Charlie Huntress said the town hired The Thomas Agency in Portland in 2008 to collect its unpaid ambulance fees.

“We have had good success,” Huntress said. “We have written off very little.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: mcreamer@pressherald.com