Tuesday, December 2, 2008

'Crash taxes' add hefty fees for aid

If this tax is ever proposed in Illinois or Chicago it should be opposed by every taxpayer in the state and city. What the hell do we pay taxes for in the first place!?!
Tommie L. Williams, Comptroller

It's bad enough to be in a car accident, but getting billed for the police and/or fire department response can make matters worse. And your insurance may not cover that.

Published Dec. 2, 2008

By Peter Lewis

Imagine you're cruising down the road when you hit a patch of black ice and slide into a guardrail. A passing motorist calls 911. Soon firetrucks and police arrive.

Weeks later, a $1,400 bill does, too -- for the cost of the police and firefighters who answered the call. What's worse, it's not covered by insurance, and it might scar your credit if you ignore it.

Sound implausible? It's happening in a number of towns, cities and counties in at least 24 states. And given today's cratering economy (and property-tax revenue), more strapped local governments may be tempted to authorize so-called accident response fees.

Private vendors that promote such programs show up at city council meetings and police and fire chief conventions with model ordinances and fee schedules in hand. The vendors typically take a 10% cut of what's recovered.

Though five states (Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) have banned "crash taxes" outright, insurers, lawmakers and vendors are squaring off elsewhere, even setting up warring Web sites such as Municipal Fee Facts and AccidentResponseFees.com. Who's caught in the middle? Drivers like you.

That'll be $2,200
Two years ago, Luke Gutilla lost control of his motorcycle along a road in Richland Township in Cambria County, Pa. He suffered a leg injury and was taken by ambulance to get treatment, which his insurance covered.

Several months later, Gutilla received a bill for nearly $2,200 for the services of seven firefighters, an assistant chief, two fire vehicles, three police cruises and three officers. The bill also itemized things like "brooms and mops and things that were just kind of strange," he recounted recently.

Gutilla, 26, a cable-company technician in Johnstown, Pa., said he started receiving a string of demand letters from a third-party vendor. "I threw away the papers they sent me and just ignored them," he recalled.

He never paid the bill -- sent "inadvertently," according to the vendor -- and nothing showed up on his credit report.

Insurance trade groups estimate the typical bill for nonmedical accident response fees at between $100 and $300, although some run considerably higher. Ordinances establishing crash response fees typically distinguish between resident and nonresident, who's at fault and who has insurance. They usually go after the out-of-towners, especially if there's an interstate highway nearby that spurs the bulk of accident responses.

A sampling of fees from across Florida:

$28 an hour for a police officer.

$200 an hour for a fire chief.

$435 for a fire/rescue response to no-injury accident.

$1,000 for complex accident extrication.

Why doesn't insurance cover this?
Medical services, including ambulance transportation, have always been covered under medical payments, personal-injury protection and no-fault provisions, according to Jessica Hanson, a spokeswoman with Property Casualty Insurance Association of America.

But Joe Thesing, an industry lobbyist with the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said the typical policy does not cover accident response fees because "it is our belief that local taxes pay for those."

It's up to each company to determine, based on policy language, whether to pay the fees. "But most instances that we learn of do not provide coverage," Hanson said.

The insurance industry contends that if accident response fees catch on, it will drive up everybody's rates. Without a consistent fee structure, it's impossible to estimate how much higher policies might run, according to Mary Bonelli, an Ohio Insurance Institute spokeswoman who has been tracking the issue for five years.

"You wouldn't get something for nothing," she said. Or, she said, a carrier might place a cap on such coverage, similar to the $500 allowed under homeowners policies for fire department runs.

Some examples
To get a broader sense of the kinds of accident response bills its customers have received, State Farm provided MSN Money with some edited summaries of incidents that took place in Ohio since 2004. The company said it never paid any of them, except for legitimate medical charges:

"$350 Billed -- This accident happened in front of a fire station. Our insured driver was at fault. He reports no fire vehicles left the station. He recalls five firefighters walked from the station to the accident scene. The fire department run sheet indicates they were on scene for 20 minutes, which calculates to $1,050 per hour."

"$593 Billed -- Our insured rolled into the rear of another car. There was no damage to either car. The fire department was at the scene for less than 15 minutes."

"$350 Billed -- This accident was at an intersection controlled by a traffic signal. Both drivers claimed to have a green light. There were no witnesses. The police investigation could not determine fault. The municipality decided to bill the insured driver $350 for scene response."

"$600 Billed -- The fire department billed $300 per person to take the vital signs of the driver and passenger. Neither was transported. They were not injured and didn't have any medical treatment after the accident. The fire department reduced the bill to $100 per person. The bills were paid under the medical payments coverage."

The case for fees
Fire Chief Chad Croft in Live Oak, Fla., says his small department would continue to exist without the $2,000 to $3,000 a month it gets from accident response fees but that its service would be diminished.

The additional revenue has made it possible to afford a new $600,000 ladder truck and saved local residents from tax increases. The new truck has also improved the community's overall insurance rating, reducing commercial and residential premiums, Croft said.

He said his department has done business with Cost Recovery, an Ohio company that collects fees on behalf of municipalities, for about two years. Croft said the money "has helped us keep the standard of care that we need." He said the additional money amounts to "10% to 15% of our budget on the operations side."

A lot of tourists pass through the area en route to Disney World or Florida's beaches, and the chief estimates that 75% of the calls his 25-man department (including 10 volunteers) responds to each year are vehicle accidents on interstates.

No charges are assessed unless blame can be attributed to a particular driver, and the department seeks to collect only from at-fault motorists who don't live in the county, he said. Among motorists fitting those criteria, the department collects 30% to 40% of the time, he said.

The outlook
Cost Recovery President Regina Moore said she collects on behalf of "hundreds" of local governments across the country and said her business is "growing exponentially."

Her largest customer is Toledo, Ohio, with a population of more than 300,000. Recently, her company has been picking up smaller cities in rural parts of Florida, and it just entered Kansas, she said.

Even the insurance industry sees more growth ahead.

"There's going to be more and more pressure on cities as their budgets are tightened or cut and on fire and police departments who obviously never have enough money to run their departments," predicted Mark Lane, a lawyer and lobbyist for State Farm who opposes accident response fees. "If they can do it and earn a little extra, more are more likely to try it."

But political pressure can be just as powerful. Dozens of cities have begun the process, only to back away or later repeal.

Do you really have to pay?
How many customers or carriers actually honor these bills is unclear. Moore asserted that more than half the insurance companies she bills -- 56% -- pay up.

By contrast, a survey conducted by the Ohio Insurance Institute indicated that more than 82% of carriers reject bills for uncovered accident response services.

Bob Brown said most folks have paid when, as fire chief in the Denver suburb of Castle Rock, he established such a program. "We might have gotten $25,000 a year" for services such as mopping up hazardous materials and putting out vehicle fires on a nearby interstate, he said.

Castle Rock handled the billing internally and charged only those who weren't local, he said. And even then, it didn't bother billing if it was "only a fender bender and we didn't do anything," he added.

The majority of ordinances aim to collect only from insurance companies, but that doesn't mean you won't receive a bill. In fact, Moore's position is that while payment from carriers is "voluntary," individuals are ultimately responsible because they benefited directly. Even so, she said "less than 5%" of bills get referred to collection agencies when individuals refuse to pay.

If you get billed for accident response, you should:

Contact your insurer and forward the bill.

Get a copy of a police report detailing what medical assistance, if any, was required.

Check into any criminal liability. In at least one municipality -- Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. -- nonpayment is a misdemeanor.

Consider contacting the consumer-protection division of your state attorney general's office if you and your insurance carrier determine the bill is not warranted.

Consider disputing the charge with credit reporting agencies if the bill is sent to a collection agency.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a good summary of the issues.


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