Ambulance Rides Leave Patients With Sticker Shock

The police won't send you a bill for their help. Firefighters don't charge you to extinguish flames. After all, those services are covered by property taxes.

But most municipalities in greater Chicago will charge you for emergency transports. Ambulance fees range between $365 and $2,500, depending on the level of care and other factors such as residency and mileage, according to data compiled by the Better Government Association and NBC 5 Investigates.

Jamie Rutter said she experienced "sticker shock" after receiving an ambulance bill from the Chicago Fire Department.

"I thought I wasn't going to be able to buy groceries for a while when I saw it," Rutter said.

Rutter said her emergency transport for an injured hand several years ago lasted less than ten minutes. She received a bill for $755.

"I had heard ambulances were expensive but I didn't know just how expensive," Rutter said.

Private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid typically pays a chunk of the bill. However, patients may have a portion to pay as well.

More and more fire departments are looking at ways to fund their operations, according to Wheeling Fire Chief Keith MacIsaac.

"If we didn't bill for ambulance service and put that onus on the user we would have to find that revenue somewhere else and the most logical place is on property taxes," MacIsaac said.

Wheeling's ambulance fees are among the lowest in Cook County. For example, a resident who requires a Basic Life Support (BLS) transport is charged $365. MacIsaac said that's the amount Medicare covers.

Still, the combined fees generate about a half million dollars for Wheeling every year.

The Chicago Fire Department charges $900 for BLS services for residents.

Hometown, Roberts Park and Flossmoor each charge more than $1000 for BLS services for residents, the three highest in Cook County.

Forest View, McCook and Rosemont are the only remaining places in Cook County that do not charge residents for ambulance service. However, non-residents will get a bill.

Some cities may contract-out with a private ambulance company.

Chris Vandenberg owns a fleet of 80 ambulances and is also is president of the Illinois State Ambulance Association and said a lot factors into the rates.

"You're seeing more advanced equipment on the ambulances," Vandenberg said. "You're seeing more interaction with the doctors."

But Vandenberg said costs for insured patients could be lower.

"We are billing the private insurance companies to make up for the below cost reimbursement that we're getting from the government payers," Vandenberg said.

According to Vandenberg, Medicare currently pays between $367 and $436 dollars per transport.

Additionally, BGA analysis shows agencies in suburban Cook County billed out more than $111 million in 2012 and only received about $55 million during that time. NBC 5 Investigates found that some fire departments across the Chicago area, including non-Cook County agencies, may choose not to pursue taxpaying residents for balances not covered by private insurance companies.

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