GONZALES — The City Council backed a plan Monday to hire a Shreveport company to handle medical billing for the city ambulance service in hopes of finding a better reimbursement return from insurers.
The unanimous vote came as the five-member council faced a room full of firefighters, friends and family wearing red and heard testimonials about the city’s efficient service.
With the vote, the city will hire Aeromedical Collection Services Inc. under a one-year contract with a 90-day out clause and give the company a 9 percent cut on all it collects, fire officials said.
Mickey Hopkins, city Fire Department EMS chief, told the council the department has $300,000 in bills outstanding annually.
But some administration officials and many people in the audience expressed concerns that a majority faction of the council was looking at privatizing the city service, which is free to city residents.
Fire Chief Tracey Normand said the city provides the ambulance service and bills residents’ insurance companies for the cost. The city then writes off the portion of the residents’ cost that the insurer does not pay, he said.
In a recent letter to the online publication The Creole, Police Chief Sherman Jackson alleged that Councilmen Timothy Vessel, Terance Irvin and Gary Lacombe were trying to replace the public service with a private company.
In interviews outside the meeting Monday, Mayor Barney Arceneaux and Normand said Vessel asked whether private ambulance service was ever considered during in a recent administration public safety meeting where medical billing was being discussed.
Vessel, Irvin and Lacombe did not raise the issue Monday. Vessel commended the firefighters for helping him when he had heart attack in April.
Lacombe said after the meeting that fears about privatizing the service are a misunderstanding. He said the councilmen have been asking questions to benchmark the city services.
Lacombe said he visited Acadian Ambulance Service’s facility in Gonzales as part of that process.
When asked, Lacombe said he could see how some might misinterpret such a visit “minus context.”
“But I thought it was pretty clear with the folks that we were chatting with that we are just asking questions,” he said.
Normand said in his interview that there were talks about finding a yard stick for the city services and questions about whether the department had ever discussed if private companies could meet that level of service.
“The problem is that they can’t,” Normand said.
The city, which has two active ambulances and one reserve, provides a 4.5-minute response time, free emergency alert boxes for special needs residents and an in-house medical director, he said.