N.B. drops ambulance service fees
Conservative government fulfills one of its key 2010 election promising by eliminating fees
Chris Morris Legislature Bureau
FREDERICTON – The Tory government is acting on one of its key promises from the 2010 election campaign and is waiving ambulance fees for people who have had to dig into their own pockets to pay the $130 charge.
Health Minister Ted Flemming announced yesterday the elimination of the ambulance fee for people not already covered by government assistance or private insurance means the long-standing election commitment finally is fulfilled. The change will take effect on April 1.
“You can’t do everything on day one – you have to have priorities,” Flemming said when asked why the government waited until near the end of its mandate to act on the ambulance fee promise. “Whether you did it in year four, year three or year two … you could chase around like that until the cows come home. It’s done. It’s a platform commitment and it has been honoured. Check the box, commitment met, and that’s what is important.”
Opposition Liberal health critic Don Arseneault said he believes the ambulance fee decision is politically motivated. He said the change represents a loss in revenue at a time when nurses and other health-care professionals are being let go to save money. “Ever since they started to see the light of the coming election day, they have been spending like drunken sailors,” Arseneault said of the Tories, noting that the provincial election now is just seven months away.
“There is a cost to removing those fees. … At a time when he is sending nurses and other health-care professionals home, I find it irresponsible.”
Flemming said the cost will be minimal – probably about $600,000. He said about 70 per cent of New Brunswickers have private insurance and most of the benefits include ambulance coverage. In addition, the poor and the elderly in New Brunswick also are covered for ambulances by government programs. “So we are targeting the same group of people we are targeting in our prescription drug plan – that group of New Brunswickers who don’t have access,” Flemming said.
“If we eliminated ambulance fees in their entirety, that would be $6 million. But this way, the target group represents about $600,000 in lost revenue to Ambulance New Brunswick, which is not a lot in comparison to the big picture.” He said the new ambulance fee policy means no New Brunswicker will have to use his or her own funds to pay for an ambulance ride. In the past, there have been concerns that if the government started paying for more ambulance fees, private insurers would be tempted to drop the benefit from their packages.
Flemming said the government studied that possibility and believes the risk is minimal. He said it would represent a tiny saving for insurance companies and probably would not merit the administrative costs of changing. “All of our research shows that it would be insignificant and not worth doing,” he said.
But Arseneault said he doesn’t trust the minister’s calculations and he fears the insurance companies will alter their benefits. If that happens, he said, dropping ambulance fees could end up costing several million dollars. “We are going to be one of the only jurisdictions in Canada without ambulance fees,” he said.
New Brunswick Liberals imposed the $130 fee for ambulance service in 2009, arguing that some people were using ambulances like a free taxi to get themselves to the hospital. Ambulance New Brunswick reported that ambulance rides dropped by 15,000, or 14 per cent, just one year after introducing the fee. The elimination of the fee was a commitment in the Progressive Conservatives’ 2010 election platform.
“To think that a senior has to make a decision whether they call an ambulance or not, that could be the decision between life and death, ”David Alward said in the lead up to the election. “That’s why we believe it’s important to remove the fee.”
Ambulance New Brunswick billed $4.4 million in fees for ambulance trips in 2012.
Of that, the government collected $3.5 million. New Brunswick’s provincial ambulance service, which has been operating since December 2007, has responded to about 95,000 calls on average in each of the past two years, figures that include both 911 emergency calls and inter-facility patient transfers.