Charges for using EMS: a California town’s plan sows confusion
Tracy, California, made headlines when word incorrectly got out that it would charge $300 for each 911 call. Under a law passed last year, most households will pay less than $50 annually to offset the cost of emergency medical services.
The residents of Tracy, California, will soon be receiving a form in the mail to choose how they want to pay for an emergency medical service cost recovery fee program.Skip to next paragraph
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They will not – as has been widely reported – be charged a fee of $300 for merely dialing 911. The cash-strapped town approved the new law last June and has faced considerable confusion among residents who have misunderstood the policy’s parameters. As late as this week, city council member Mike Maciel went on the “Fox and Friends” morning show to defend the program alongside an irate resident, when he realized through the on-air introduction that the show had gotten it wrong.
“Journalists have been ringing our phones off the wall and even our town residents didn’t understand what we did, which shows the effects of viral misinformation,” says City Manager Leon Churchill. He and Mr. Maciel explain that the city of 80,000 copied the language from a law already adopted by 17 other California cities, including Fullerton and Costa Mesa. “Yes, we are having financial problems like all of California, which is up to its neck in debt because of the economy," says Mr. Churchill. "But for some reason, this has morphed into reports that every time you dial 911, you get charged $300, which is untrue.”
In fact, the town says it has bent over backwards to accommodate its citizens by allowing them to subscribe to the service for $48 per household per year, $36 if the household is low-income. The $300 fee is charged only if the first responder, in this case with the fire department, administers medical treatment. Maciel explains that the city already had a private ambulance service, and wanted to augment that with a fire department that also had medical personnel.
“The good side of this is if the fire department arrives, they have someone who can go into lifesaving mode,” says Maciel. “We felt this was a significant improvement over what we had.”
In a phone interview, Maciel and Churchill explain how the city has cut $7 million from its budget, and laid off 80 over 4 years – 40 in the past 12 months alone – to fill major gaps produced by the loss of property tax revenue.
The idea to improve the emergency service came when the town had been flush with cash. Existing tax revenue only covered the infrastructure of having a 911 system, not costs associated with medical attention given as a result.
The town has growing pains. Through the 90s Tracy's population grew by about 70 percent. It is estimated that in the first five years of this decade the population of Tracy has grown another 40 percent.