EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to conduct an independent audit of the city's designated ambulance service, American Medical Response (AMR), with the goal of verifying the results of the company's internal review, in which it acknowledged that it had overbilled hundreds of patients. The company claimed that it has since provided refunds of $16,000 or adjusted all outstanding invoices.
An independent audit can't come soon enough for several people who reached out to the New Hampshire Union Leader after an article about the audit last week.
They described a common experience of being billed more than $1,000 for a single ambulance trip, double the approximately $600 AMR is authorized to charge under its contract with the Manchester Fire Department. The city residents say that rather than acknowledge a problem with their billing system, AMR told them it would refer the bills to a collection agency; in some cases the company already had.
Debra Hubbard says she has a stack of bills from AMR totaling more than $10,000 for eight ambulance trips since 2011. Her husband has Huntington's disease, a condition that causes severe mood swings that have prompted regular trips to the hospital.
The charges have only been partially covered by her husband's insurance plans — Medicare and the veterans insurer Tricare.
“I've been moaning about it a long time,”' Hubbard said. “They say if I don't pay, they're going to send it to a collection agency.”
Alyce Amico says she received a bill for nearly $2,000 after her husband was transported less than a mile to Elliot Hospital.
When she protested the bill, Amico said, the company also threatened to refer it to a collection agency. She said she had recently gotten someone to lower the bill amount, but this person was in Ohio and didn't appear to be coordinating with the local office.
After Nancy Barron's son Mike suffered a grand mal seizure in April, they were charged $2,073 for the three-mile ride to Elliot Hospital.
“I'm just beside myself over this bill,” Barron said. “I was just absolutely dumbfounded.”
About half the bill was not covered by insurance, and AMR sent it to a collection agency, Barron said.
The fire department began its contract with AMR in January 2011, after the city's previous ambulance service, Rockingham Ambulance, went out of business. AMR, which is based in Colorado, calls itself the largest private ambulance service provider in the country.
Manchester Fire Chief James Burkush says that under AMR's contract, the company can't charge more than 35 percent on top of the Medicare rate for ambulance trips, an amount that works out to about $600.
AMR's own internal audit found that 323 ambulance trips out of nearly 5,000 in 2011 and in the first months of 2012 were incorrectly billed, a problem it attributed to human error.
Burkush says the company has been cooperative in the review, and he said he was surprised to hear that people were still having problems. He encourages residents who continue to have billing problems to contact the fire department.
Meanwhile, it will likely be at least a month before the city's audit is complete.
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No sooner had the aldermen voted to hold a special election for the Ward 11 seat vacated by Russ Ouellette than two candidates threw their hats in the ring.
Ouellette, you may recall, resigned last week after being arrested Monday and charged with sexually assaulting a woman in his truck. (He was subsequently arrested a second time for allegedly violating his bail conditions.)
Both candidates should have a familiar ring. Emily Sandblade and Eric Fischer ran against Ouellette in last year's election for the West Side seat.
Fischer is an electrician by trade who works for the Manchester Housing Authority. He also was a member of the Board of School Committee from 2008 to 2011. A single parent, he describes himself as a Republican who's concerned about the district's schools.
“I'm troubled by the fact that we're building new city buildings while we're laying off employees,” he said.
Sandblade is a favorite of the Manchester Republican Committee and is also running in the state representative race for Ward 11. She's a software engineer and is the membership chairman for the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, a libertarian group.
She did not respond to several calls for comment, but Mike Ball, chairman of the city GOP committee, said she would make “a stellar addition to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.”
So far, the city's Democratic committee has been mum about any prospective candidates in what is technically a nonpartisan election.
There's still plenty of time, sort of. The official filing period for the Ward 11 race starts Monday and runs for two weeks.
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Remember the two young women who graduated from Memorial High School in 2010 with perfect attendance and all they got was a pat on the back from the aldermen?
The Board of School Committee is working on changing the district's attendance policy so that schools can again honor such feats at graduation.
It's part of a broader plan to restore both the carrots and sticks in the district's attendance policy.
The committee is set to bring back a policy that would slap students who miss five or more days of class with a failing grade.
Mayor Ted Gatsas says he wants the policy to also recognize extraordinarily good students.
“If a student can complete four years and never miss a day, that's something we should recognize,” he said.
The Coordination Committee will take up the policy when it meets next month.
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Speaking of policy revisions, the school committee is expected to do an about-face on funding for charter school busing when it meets on Monday. In an attempt to bolster its staffing budget, the committee voted in June to eliminate $82,000 earmarked to bus students to charter schools.
Superintendant Thomas Brennan was then informed by the state Department of Education that the district couldn't do that. Show me in writing, was Brennan's response.
The DOE's answer came in the form of a letter from Education Commissioner Virginia Barry. “Please note that recently enacted RSA 194-B:2, V explicitly requires the district to fund such costs,” she wrote.
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Ted Siefer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Union Leader reporter Tim Buckland contributed to this column.