By Andrew Soergel

Lexington City Council on Thursday unanimously approved an agreement signed by the Lexington Fire and Rescue Department to lease its emergency vehicles to Rockbridge County when responding to calls.

Lexington's fire trucks and ambulances can be leased by Rockbridge County. (Andrew Soergel)

The agreement, which does not change existing emergency response protocol, brings the Lexington Fire and Rescue Department in line with five Rockbridge County rescue squads that have already signed similar contracts. The deal eases the Medicare billing process for the county and allows the Lexington Fire and Rescue Department to continue to answer calls in both Lexington and Rockbridge County.

“A lot of the county’s major commercial property and also part of the tourism industry is centered right outside this city,” Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Foresman said, explaining the county’s need for Lexington’s emergency medical services.

More than 60 percent of all calls fielded by Lexington’s fire and rescue department are for areas outside the city limits, Foresman said. The revised agreement would provide financial support to the Lexington Fire and Rescue Department in exchange for continued service to areas in the county.

“[With this contract], we are ensured that our citizens, our shoppers, and our tax base are protected in a professional manner and with responsible service,” Foresman said.

The contract helps ensure that the county avoids spending additional taxpayer dollars on a new fire department that would likely be placed down the road from Lexington’s existing department.

“My long-term goal is to operate as efficiently as possible,” Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson said.

Dickerson believes his department is better used serving areas both inside and outside the Lexington city limits.

“We’re the busiest department in Rockbridge County by far, but we wouldn’t be maxed out [in Lexington alone]. We want to provide the best service and best return,” he said.

Under the terms of the contract, the county will help cover operating costs, including salaries and benefits for full-time emergency staff, insurance, maintenance costs, equipment leasing, supplies and other expenses not directly classified as “capital.”

A similar joint services agreement between Rockbridge County and Lexington expired on June 30. Although no formal agreement had been in place since that time, Lexington’s fire and rescue department has continued to respond to emergencies outside the city.

“Nothing changes in operations. This is just to cover us on paper,” Foresman said.

Lease agreements between the county and the city date back to January 2011, when the county started billing for ambulance transportation as a way to raise revenue.

Revisions to national Medicare programs in early 2011 called for increased enforcement of rules regarding Medicare billing.

“One of the rules was that the locality [in this case, Rockbridge County] has to own or operate the vehicles that it is billing for,” Foresman said.

To continue collecting emergency service bills, the county began a nine-month negotiation process with insurance and healthcare officials to find a solution other than buying an entirely new fleet of emergency vehicles. This solution came in the form of temporary lease agreements.

Five rescue squads signed similar contracts with the county within the past few weeks. Fairfield, Glasgow, Kerrs Creek, Effinger and Goshen rescue squads have all agreed to let the county “borrow” their emergency equipment when they respond to calls.

Between these five rescue crews, Medicare has tied up more than $300,000 in outstanding medical bills, County Administrator Spencer Suter said. These new lease agreements should bring that money back to the county. It will then be distributed among the five departments.

Foresman said it is still too early to tell what kind of return Lexington’s renewed contract with the county will bring. However, he believes any kind of monetary collection is secondary to ensuring the safety of Rockbridge County citizens.

“It doesn’t matter where you get hurt,” he said, “You are going to get the highest, most professional service available.”

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