Pa. ambulance service looks for solutions to financial problems
Based on revenue from 1,200 calls annually, the Topton Community Ambulance Service is losing about $150,000 a year
By Ron Devlin
LONGSWAMP TOWNSHIP, Penn. — The Topton Community Ambulance Service is in financial trouble, so the Longswamp Township supervisors devoted a special meeting Thursday night to looking for solutions.
“We’re here to discuss the crisis in our EMS and ambulance corps,” said Joyce Marin, a supervisor who moderated the meeting at the township building.
The ambulance service, a nonprofit with eight full-time and some part-time medics, provides 24-hour service to Longswamp Township, Topton and Lyons and parts of Maxatawny and Rockland townships.
Based on revenue from 1,200 calls annually, the service is losing about $150,000 a year.
With operational costs of about $700,000 annually, officials indicated it will be difficult to sustain the current level of losses long term.
Josh Sheetz, president, said the economics of running a small, around-the-clock ambulance service are simply not working.
“If we want an ambulance service in our community,” he said, “the money is going to have to come from someplace else.”
Sheetz outlined the problem in a lengthy slide presentation.
The service bills $1,200 for a basic life support call and $1,800 for an advanced life support call, but receives less than $500 reimbursement from Medicare and private insurers.
On average, it costs the service $565 to field a call, while the reimbursement averages about $427, or a $138 loss.
“The expense of a call is higher than what we actually get,” he said. “Every time an ambulance goes out, we lose money.”
The service owes about $600,000 on its 10-year-old headquarters, Sheetz said, and the annual $54,000 debt service is one of its most challenging financial problems.
Selling the building and moving to a new headquarters is complicated by deed restrictions governing the use of the building by a new owner, he said. Basically, its use is limited to another ambulance corps.
One of the suggestions to alleviate the problem is to have the municipalities it serves enact an emergency medical services tax based on the number of calls they receive.
Longswamp, which receives more than half of the calls, already has an EMS tax that generates about $32,000 annually for the service. A recent proposal to raise the tax to generate about $105,000 a year failed to get the support of the township supervisors.
Marcus Dolny, Topton’s manager, said there was a “strong possibility” the borough would consider enacting an EMS tax.
Another possibility, Marin said, was to contract with ambulance corps from surrounding areas to provide the service. Kutztown, Macungie and Cetronia have expressed interest in taking over Topton’s territory, she said.
The problem, Marin said, is that going without the area corps would increase the response time in emergencies. Located near the Lutheran Home at Topton, the local service has a response time of about 2 minutes for local calls.
In Longswamp, about 38 percent of the calls come from the Lutheran Home and 5 percent from Bear Creek Mountain Resort & Conference Center, which has a ski area.
One suggestion was to have volunteers make phone calls in an attempt to increase memberships in the service.
The service mails 5,165 membership requests but receives only 1,163 signups. Memberships bring in about $85,000 a year.
The $45 individual and $85 family membership ensures the ambulance service will not bill recipients for the amount their insurance companies do not reimburse.
The service, Sheetz said, has been grappling with what to do about its financial problem for several years.
“We’ve considered selling the building, mergers and asking the township for more money,” he said. “We’ve just about exhausted all our options.”
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