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CAS ambulance faces IRS trouble

| Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2002

After being out of service since Friday, the financially troubled Community Ambulance Service was back in operation today, available to serve some 15,000 Mid-Mon Valley residents as a volunteer organization.

CAS board president Dave Martini and vice president Kimberly Rehe conducted a press conference Monday night to dispel rumors about the organization's possible demise.

They said the Internal Revenue Service has frozen CAS' assets because the service owes federal taxes from 2001.

CAS owes $141,972.64 in taxes, late fees and penalties, according to a tax notice filed Nov. 6 at the Fayette County Prothonotary's Office.

"In January this year, through an internal audit, we found some discrepancies ... at that time, we contacted the Internal Revenue Service to find out where we stood," Martini told the gathering at the organization's Washington Township headquarters.

"Nobody sent us anything. We went to them. The IRS probably wouldn't have caught that for four or five years.

"The whole mess we're in now we started because we went to them."

Rehe said CAS used money from its subscribers from last year to "catch up."

"They wanted one lump payment we couldn't do," she said. "The sums that they asked for were too outrageous for us to come up with and we got an attorney."

The 25-year-old service shut down temporarily Friday night as a liability insurance precaution, Martini said.

"We were not sure if we had a lapse in insurance or not," he said. "We determined as a whole that we were going to take our vehicles off the road to protect our people, our employees and our constituents.

"Being a Friday night, you're not going to get an insurance company or agent on the phone. Although, we did try."

The service was back on line at 8 this morning.

But its 40 employees are now working as volunteers rather than paid personnel. The service formerly had only three volunteers.

"All of our members have decided to stay on," Rehe said. "I think that they need to be commended for that. We don't want the community to have to wait 20 minutes to wait for an ambulance service to come out of Fayette (County). We have been great with our response time between four and six minutes. It's a luxury that may go away."

Martini said CAS resumed operating after getting confirmation of its insurance status.

"Our liability (insurance) is fully covered so we are back up to the service for the long run," Martini said. "We have extended our yearly subscriptions to the month of February 2003."

CAS serves about 15,000 people in North Belle Vernon in Westmoreland County; Allenport, Elco, Roscoe, Stockdale, Long Branch and Dunlevy in Washington County; and Fayette City, Belle Vernon, Newell and Jefferson Township in Fayette County.

CAS supervisors met with officials of the affected boroughs and townships Sunday to inform them about the ambulance service's financial strife.

"The response from our neighboring services has been outstanding," Martini said. "We've had services offer to come in and drive our trucks ... do our billing ... to give us a hand in any way. This is great."

Martini said CAS officials would continue meeting with two attorneys and a certified public accountant to find a solution to its financial problem.

CAS has paid its federal taxes for 2002, according to Martini and Rehe, who said they do not suspect tax dollars were misappropriated.

Rehe said the future looks grim for most ambulance services.

"They predicted in the year 2004, half of the ambulance services will be closed," she said. "The money just isn't there anymore. We have done nothing illegal.

"We need the support of the local community. We're hurting for money. So is everybody else. Medicare reimbursements are down. The expenses for operating have gone up, the gas (prices have) gone up. And we have not raised prescription prices to any of our members."

Rehe said CAS has searched for bank loans and government grants but has come up empty.

"No one wants to invest, because EMS is a risky business," she said. "We usually get 4,000 calls a year. We're down to 1,700 calls.

"The insurance companies are dictating you have to call your primary care physician before you call an ambulance.

"We get a better response from an insurance company for grandma, who broke her toe, than we do from grand pap, who had a heart attack," Martini said. "At this time, we just want to basically let the people know that there will be no change in the coverage. We'll still provide the same excellent care that we have over the years and we hope to be here for many years to come. We're here and we plan on staying."

The financial problems facing CAS have prompted some local communities to hook up with other ambulance providers.

Fayette City and Roscoe have switched to Brownsville Ambulance Service Inc., which they previously named as a secondary provider.

Fayette City Council President Jim Eley Jr. said this morning he had not been informed that CAS was back in operation.

Eley said Fayette City would stay with the Brownsville service until a vote can be taken at the Dec. 9 council meeting.

Even then, council might decide to rule CAS out, Eley said.

"There are some things that council is going to ask of them before we decide to go back with them," Eley said. "I'm not calling a special meeting (to vote).

"They told us that before they would go back on service they would contact all of us. They have not contacted Fayette City yet."

Roscoe Mayor Tom Wilkinson said his community switched to the Brownsville service during the past weekend.

Wilkinson said council adopted a contingency plan service after hearing rumors about CAS "through the grapevine."

He said Roscoe would stay with Brownsville EMS "until (CAS) can get things ironed out."

"They're running with volunteer crews and we're not happy with that," he said.

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