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Renton ready to impose $600 hospital transport fee; insurers to pay

Over the objections of the city's firefighters, the Renton City Council is ready to charge a $600 fee to pay for transportation to a hospital by the city's medic unit.

The fee is needed to help balance the city's 2013-2014 biennial budget, which the council will formally adopt on Monday night at its 7 p.m. meeting.

Under current estimates, the fee would raise about $325,000 starting in 2014. The money would go to the city's general fund, which pays for fire services.

Without the fee, the potential exists for layoffs within the fire department.

The City Council considered a transport fee in 2010, when other layoffs were made. For this biennium the city is facing continued budget reductions because of revenue shortfalls.

The City Council initially approved a resolution and ordinances related to the $457 million biennial budget Monday night. All votes were unanimous, although council member Marcie Palmer voted against imposing the transport fee. She expressed concern the new fee would confuse residents and would generate bad will with firefighters.

Council members talked about looking for ways to end the fee during the biennium. But, for now, they pointed out it's needed to balance the budget and the council has few options to replace it.

The idea is to bill the resident's insurance company, so that no one will actually pay the transport fee out of pocket, including deductibles and co-payments, according to Preeti Shridhar, the city's spokeswoman.

The city won't charge city residents for the transport if the insurance company doesn't pay the bill, she said.

Typically, a person needing transport is asked for insurance information at the time of the call.

"The goal is to have no impact on individuals," she said. No one would be denied transport service, she said.

However, the city would bill residents who don't have insurance, although there is a provision that allows the city to waive or forgive the debt if the person cannot afford to pay the bill.

The payment requirements are different for non-residents. Their insurance company would be billed for the transport cost, but they would pay deductibles and co-payments. There's also the possibility that those costs would be waived or forgiven.

The fee applies to medical transports by city fire crews in the city and in Fire District 25, which contracts for fire services with Renton.

The fee does not apply to residents of Fire District 40, which contracts with Renton for fire services. The city's contract with Fire District 40 includes what's known as basic life support transport.

Besides the $600 fee, the city would charge a rate of $14 a mile for the transport.

The new fee would start in September 2013, with revenue generated for 2014.

The city estimates that about 92 percent of those needing transport are now carried by a private ambulance. The fee is similar to one imposed in other cities, including the Valley Regional Fire Authority, Bellevue, Mercer Island and Kirkland.

Renton firefighters and their union leadership have been out in force at recent City Council meetings to protest the new fee.

"We are not here to generate revenue. We are here to provide for the public safety," Mark dos Remedios, president of Renton IAFF Local 864, told the City Council Monday night.

He told the council he understands it must balance the budget; but decisions must be based on what makes sense for the public.

Firefighters already provide a level of service and public safety to the public, which includes transport when necessary, he said.

"We don't want to do that at a further cost to the taxpayer," he said.

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