The Watertown Ambulance Service will now be able to bill town residents directly for whatever balance their medical insurance company refuses to pay.
On Thursday night, the Town Council voted 4-1 to change language in the ambulance contract to allow the squad to collect payments from its users with private health insurance. The contract had barred the ambulance service from billing town residents that use the service.
The amount in unpaid bills has escalated because some private health insurance companies have refused to cover ambulance trips, said David C. Roof, the ambulance squads president.
With a little more than five months remaining in 2012, the amount in unpaid bills already exceeded all of last years, Mr. Roof said.
For the first seven months of the year, the ambulance service accumulated $37,867 in unpaid bills, up from $24,934 for all of 2012. That has put the ambulance service in a financial bind, he said.
It really has hurt us, he said.
But Councilman Edward Smith, who voted against the change in the contract, said residents should not be charged for the service because the town contributes $150,000 a year to the ambulance squad. Residents should not have to reach into their pockets and pay in addition, he said.
Nonetheless, the contract will also now allow the ambulance service to go after people who have not paid.
Until now, the ambulance service has been unable to seek legal recourse for uncollected user fees.
The nonprofit ambulance squad has provided service to town residents since branching off from the Fire Department in 2008.
Mr. Roof blamed the situation on an increasing number of people unable to afford health coverage, those who face higher deductibles and those who decide to forgo insurance.
In the past, insurance companies paid 80 percent of the fee, but people are now required to pay more because their deductibles are a lot higher, he said. The ambulance service then has to absorb the loss in revenue if it cannot recover the uncollected fees.
Mr. Roof stressed that only residents who use the ambulance service will be charged, and added he has mixed feelings about changing the billing policy. He also said the squad provides coverage to more people because the Jefferson County Department of Social Services puts up clients temporarily at local motels.
The burden, then, falls on people who have lived in the town all of their lives, Mr. Roof acknowledged.
Last year, the service had a $316,000 budget, with revenue from user fees, fund-raising campaigns and donations. Since 2008, the ambulance service has gone on about 5,000 calls.