INDEPENDENCE -- Polk County Fire District No. 1 may be forced to discontinue its FireMed ambulance program unless it finds a way to boost sagging membership, officials said last week.
Subscribers to FireMed pay the district an annual flat fee of $50 in exchange for full coverage on ambulance transportation. A single ride can cost up to $800.
The program also entitles members to related emergency treatment, covers the entire household and is honored throughout most of the state.
In turn, the county uses revenue from the program to cover the cost of operating its ambulance services.
But that's becoming more difficult to do as the need for emergency services in the county increases and puts a strain on the fire district's financial resources, said administrative assistant Traci Weston.
"It's getting harder to meet the demand because the tax base isn't growing," she said.
"FireMed was created to sort of fill in the gap, but we just don't have enough people subscribing to cover all our expenses."
The district just completed open enrollment in the program, and coverage for current members runs until Oct. 31. Weston said officials hope to have a decision regarding the future of FireMed by next summer.
Weston said there have always been problems gaining new FireMed membership, but that the numbers have gradually fallen since it first became available in the early '90s.
There are roughly 6,000 families living in Monmouth, Independence and the outlying areas in Southwest Polk County. Weston said only 600 of them take part in the program.
To keep FireMed alive and profitable, the district would need at least 20 percent of the population or 1,200 families subscribing.
Stopping the program means the fire district would have to find another way to support its emergency services.
"If there's not enough subscribers, we'll have to look at alternatives, and usually that means taxes," Weston said, noting the district can't afford to cut corners when it comes to equipment and service training.
"We're not like the federal government. We have to pay our bills for this service. We can't operate in the red," she said. "When you're talking about health care, you don't want to cut any more services because it seems like we're barely keeping up as it is."
Weston said discontinuing FireMed would naturally hurt those subscribers in the community who most often require emergency transportation such as the elderly or people with diabetes or other serious health conditions.
It would also eliminate a cheap, health-care option for low-income families.
"We have a lot of families that have no health insurance who use this," Weston said.
Carl West of Monmouth said he subscribed to the plan after seeing how high his late brother's medical expenses were.
"I felt it was a good deal. I saw bills from when he was taken by ambulance [to the hospital]," he said, "and it cost like $800 or $900. And this was back in '93 or '94.
"So out of reason, you have an opportunity to buy something like this as a sort of insurance. Most medical plans cover a little bit of your ambulance rides, but nothing that much."
West said at $800, it would only take one ambulance ride to justify buying several years' worth of FireMed.
Weston said the program provides peace of mind, knowing that immediate emergency service is there if you need it, without cost.
She cites her late mother-in-law as an example. She suffered from congestive heart disease and used FireMed three times over the course of a year.
"I believe without it, she would have died sooner," she said, "because she wouldn't have called an ambulance because she couldn't afford it."
More information on FireMed is available by calling 503-838-1510.