Calif. city votes to bill insurance when firefighters respond to emergencies

Wittman Enterprises will bill for EMS calls; Fire Recovery USA will bill for fires, vehicle accidents, special rescues and hazardous materials calls


Kevin Valine
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. — Modesto soon will bill insurance companies when its firefighters put out a house fire, treat someone who has had a medical emergency, respond to a car wreck and go out on other calls for service.

The City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously for the city to hire two companies to bill insurance on behalf of the aid provided by its firefighters.

The city does not expect every bill to be paid, and part of what is collected will go to the billing companies — Fire Recovery USA and Wittman Enterprises.
The city does not expect every bill to be paid, and part of what is collected will go to the billing companies — Fire Recovery USA and Wittman Enterprises. (Image/Modesto Fire Department)

Fire Chief Alan Ernst has said the billing could start as soon as early 2022.

He told council members the city will use what he called compassionate billing. That means the city expects the insurance companies to pay and would not pursue payment from the people who received services from firefighters. The city also would continue to help people without insurance, he said, and would expect no payment.

Modesto expects to net about $1.5 million annually for the Fire Department's budget through billing insurance companies. The city does not expect every bill to be paid, and part of what is collected will go to the billing companies — Fire Recovery USA and Wittman Enterprises.

While the sales, property and other taxes that pay for public safety are growing, they have not grown as fast as the city's expenses, officials have said. And each year, Modesto faces challenges in balancing its general fund, which makes up about a third of its annual operating budget and primarily pays for public safety.

Roseville-based Fire Recovery USA will bill and collect for vehicle accidents, vehicle fires, fires, special rescues and calls about hazardous materials or conditions. Rancho Cordova-based Wittman Enterprises will bill for emergency medical calls.

Fire Recovery would charge a variety of rates based on the type of call. For instance, it could charge $516 an hour for firefighters to respond to a car accident or $475 per hour for an engine to respond to a fire. Wittman would charge a $360 first-responder fee for emergency medical calls.

Modesto resident Emerson Drake spoke against the proposal, saying residents already paid taxes for Fire Department services and billing insurance would result in higher premiums for policyholders.

A Fire Recovery official said that was not true, though he said premiums can go up because policyholders have accidents.

Councilman David Wright, who owns Wright Insurance Agency, said it's an industry practice that homeowner policies pay fire departments up to $500 for responding to a fire.

Out of an abundance of caution, Wright did not take part in Tuesday's council discussion or vote. Wright is an insurance broker and has been in the insurance business since 1985. He deals in health, auto, homeowners, life and commercial insurance.

He said he does not believe billing insurance will result in higher premiums. "I'm not concerned," he said in a Wednesday interview. "No. I don't think it's that big of a loss (to insurers). I think the majority of the cities are already doing this. ... We should have been doing this a long time ago."

Fire Recovery USA states on its website that it has been in business since 2006 and is doing business with more than 1,300 fire departments in 42 states.

Wittman Enterprises states in its proposal to the city that it has been in business since 1991 and is doing business with more than 110 public EMS and fire agencies in California.

Ernst said that locally, the Salida, Oakdale and Stanislaus Consolidated fire protection districts bill insurance for services.

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(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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