EMSA billing woes continue
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
4/25/12 at 7:58 AM
See previous stories about EMSA's financial practices.
Read an agenda for EMSA’s board meeting Wednesday.
Related story: Board to weigh applying rules.
Robert Weppler lives in the middle of Tulsa and pays a fee on his utility bill to avoid out-of-pocket costs for EMSA ambulance service.
That's why Weppler was surprised to receive a bill last month from a Glenpool ambulance company that responded to a Feb. 20 call because no EMSA ambulances were available.
Another Tulsa resident, Don Frazier, said he recently learned that he is paying twice to be a member of the utility-fee program because EMSA didn't tell him his apartment complex is already enrolled.
"I feel like they are just running a totally dictatorial type of a process in a public trust," said Frazier, a retired pharmacist.
The Emergency Medical Services Authority, a government agency, provides ambulance service to more than 1.1 million Oklahomans.
A Tulsa World investigation has found that EMSA bills all patients, including those in the utility-fee program, and has sued at least 124 people in Tulsa County who live at addresses included in the utility program. A lawsuit seeking class-action status has been filed, alleging that EMSA fraudulently collects funds from people in the program.
Despite EMSA's assurances that problems are isolated to a handful of cases, Tulsa residents continue to be confused by a variety of issues involving the agency's utility bill program.
EMSA CEO Steve Williamson has declined requests for comment, referring questions to an EMSA attorney.
"Due to privacy concerns, which EMSA takes very seriously, EMSA cannot respond to questions about individual patient accounts," attorney Kris Koepsel said in an email to the World. "EMSA's billing and collection process is thorough, fair and can be trusted. It is similar to any health care organization of our size. To imply otherwise, is misleading."
Williamson has said there is no way to know how many people in the program accidentally paid bills they did not owe.
The agency's board is set to vote at its meeting Wednesday on a proposal to request an investigative audit. The Tulsa City Council has called on the board to request such an audit into the program's billing practices as well as its travel and capital expenses.
Weppler, 83, said he called an ambulance Feb. 20 after he had an episode of double vision and became disoriented at a grocery store. After being transported to St. Francis Hospital, Weppler was treated and released, happy to learn that he had no serious health problem.
Records show that Weppler received a bill dated March 31 for $81.08 from Emergency Medical Service Plus, a private ambulance company based in Glenpool. EMS Plus responded to the call because EMSA had no ambulances available.
EMSA has not responded to a request for statistics on how many times it requests mutual aid annually.
The bill Weppler received states that the amount owed was for his insurance deductible. EMSA claims that TotalCare members will not be billed for out-of-pocket costs related to emergency transports.
Weppler said he has lived in his home near Edison High School since 1975 and has been enrolled in the TotalCare program since the utility-fee program began in 2007.
After several phone calls to EMSA and the Glenpool ambulance company, Weppler said he straightened out the matter and has not had to pay the deductible.
He said he is concerned, though, about others in the program who may not be as proactive.
"Needless to say, I don't take things lying down, even though I'm 83 years old, so I wrote a letter to my councilman."
Kristie Walton, who operates EMS Plus, said the company's ambulances respond to about half a dozen calls for EMSA each year. Walton said financial information isn't discussed when dispatchers receive a call.
Walton said EMSA does not follow up afterward to alert her company that a patient is enrolled in the TotalCare program.
"Most generally what we do is if we do send a patient a bill and they call, we say, 'Can you just call EMSA and work it out with them?' It does get confusing."
Frazier, 65, said he has been a member of EMSA's TotalCare annual subscription program for about 10 years. Citizens who are not eligible to take part in the monthly utility program can pay $45 per year to join the annual program.
He said he moved to Woodland Manor, an apartment complex near 68th Street and Memorial Drive, about four years ago but was not aware that the complex was part of the utility program. City records show that about half of the multi-family properties in Tulsa, including Woodland Manor, are included in the program.
Frazier said EMSA should notify people who join the annual program if they live in an address that is already covered by TotalCare.
"They are getting everything out of both worlds. ... They are in a can't-lose situation."
EMSA did not respond to a request for policies regarding whether it informs TotalCare subscription program members that they are enrolled through their utility bills.
Frazier said he has numerous medical problems since surviving a nearly fatal car wreck in 1998 and having to have half of his right leg amputated.
He said he was billed $271 for a trip home from a hospital after being transported there for an emergency last summer.
Frazier has received letters saying EMSA was turning his account over to collections. He said he lives on Social Security and disability and cannot afford to pay the bill.
"It's like being involved in a crooked card game," he said. "You think you have a good hand, but when you start to show your cards, it's like they are playing out of a different deck entirely."
Confusion: EMSA bills residents who participate in a monthly program that is supposed to provide for no out-of-pocket fees for EMSA service.
New rules: EMSA added a rule that patients who did not provide insurance information within 60 days would become responsible for their entire bills.
Lawsuits: EMSA has sued at least 124 people who live at addresses listed in city records as covered by the monthly utility program. The agency has since dropped several of the lawsuits. A lawsuit seeking class-action status has been filed against EMSA.
Capital spending: EMSA has spent funds on items that range from a $999 Christmas tree to a $9,000 area rug. Millions have been spent on remodeling projects at its Tulsa headquarters at 1417 N. Lansing Ave.
Travel spending: EMSA executives spent more than $100,000 a year the past three years on travel-related costs. Williamson billed EMSA for numerous first-class flights, saying he was under doctor's orders to fly first class due to medical problems.
Division loans: EMSA loaned $800,000 from the agency's Eastern Division, which includes Tulsa, to the Western Division, which includes Oklahoma City. The amount of the loan surprised officials in Oklahoma City.
Possible conflicts of interest: Williamson's two daughters were hired by the law firm with which EMSA contracts. Records do not show that Williamson disclosed his daughters' employment with the firm and that he continued to sign the firm's contracts.
Paramedics Plus, the agency that contracts to provide medics for EMSA, paid for $25,000 worth of Williamson's travel on behalf of the industry association.
Board involvement: EMSA's 11-member board canceled about half of its board meetings in the last year. The term of its chairman expired in June.
EMSA CEO Steve Williamson has said people who believe they were wrongly charged for services or paid ambulance bills they did not owe should call the agency. He said EMSA will give refunds if that occurred.
If you believe you have been wrongly charged for services, you can contact EMSA at:
Eastern Division (Tulsa): 918-396-2888
Western Division (Oklahoma City): 405-396-2888
Original Print Headline: EMSA fuss continues
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
Don Frazier, a retired pharmacist and amputee, holds up several EMSA bills he received at his Tulsa apartment during the past year. Frazier said he is paying twice to be a member of the same TotalCare program. City records show his apartment complex has not opted out of the program. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World
EMSA CEO Steve Williamson: He instituted the requirement on supplying insurance information several years ago. He has said the time limit is necessary because the agency cannot afford to provide services without reimbursement