Updated: 07-09-2003 09:58:14 AM

Calling 911 in New Jersey Dangerous to Wallets

Courtesy of ABC7

In parts of New Jersey, the cost of paramedic service is so high -- some residents are afraid to dial 911. An Eyewitness News investigation has found those rates among the highest in the nation. Jim Hoffer has been looking into this. Here's his report.

We decided to investigate after receiving a complaint from a woman whose paramedic bill was twice the cost of her emergency room treatment.

What we found in New Jersey is one of the costliest emergency medical systems anywhere. And in the case of one company, failure to pay those steep costs could land you in court.

Ellen Wall: "When you see them in the road, I'm telling you that's $1,600 going down the road."

Teddy Zakrzewski: "They're overcharging people."

Meet some of the patients of Monmouth County's only paramedic service.

They all have one thing in common, a bill they received after calling 911, a bill they say is enough to give them a heart attack.

Jim Hoffer: "Any medication?"
Joyce Zakrzewski: "No. None."
Jim Hoffer: "They checked your vitals."
Joyce Zakrzewski: "That's all they did."

Anthony Viscuso: "How the hell are we supposed to be paying this because it is a totally outrageous figure."

Anthony Viscuso also got a bill from Monmouth Ocean Health Services. The company's critical care mobile unit transported him from the hospital, across the parking lot to another building for an MRI scan. The paramedics then drove him back to the hospital. About 500 feet each way. The bill: nearly $3,300. When he refused to pay, MONOC threatened to put a lien on his house.

Anthony Viscuso: "I told my wife if I ever get sick, whether it be a stroke like I had, to throw me in the trunk of the car but don't ever call MONOC ambulance."

Anthony Viscuso wasn't the only one threatened with a lawsuit by MONOC. Our investigation has found that in the past two-and-a-half years, the non-for-proft paramedic company has filed suit against more than 700 patients.

Vince Robbins, CEO MONOC: "We need to get that money."

MONOC'S chief executive officer says those being sued are a small fraction of its patients, a fraction who have repeatedly failed to pay their bills.

Vince Robbins: "It's our money, we need to have it to finance our operation."

MONOC says its average charge is around $1,300. The company claims that other services that charge less are heavily subsidized by town taxes. MONOC argues that mandatory caps on what it can charge medicare patients also forces it to shift costs to other customers or else go out of business.

Vince Robbins: "We're a non-profit corporation, but that doesn't mean that we're for bankruptcy or that we can operate with expenses higher than our revenue. If that occurred, we wouldn't be here for about a year or two, we'd go bankrupt."

But Maureen Glover, who had to defend herself in court for refusing to pay a bill that was twice the total cost of her emergency room treatment, accuses MONOC of price gouging.

Maureen Glover, MONOC Patient: "Those were trained doctors and nurses doing many more tests that was only $855. I thought it was absurd to get a bill double that."

Glover and others believe the high costs are the result of MONOC'S monopoly as the only paramedic company in Monmouth County.

Jim Hoffer: "There's no competitor here." Vince Robbins: "No, there shouldn't be, that would only drive cost up and quality down."

But in neighboring New York where competition thrives, costs are dramatically less. Compare Empress, a similar, non-subsidized paramedic company in Westchester County. For the same services, Empress charges $400 to $600.

Jim Blumenstock, New Jersey Deputy Commissioner of Health: "The issue of, again, of pricing and cost is not a primary mission of this department."

Jim Hoffer: "But your department commissioner set up monopolies, where there is no competition among these paramedic services. Yet there is no price control?"

Jim Blumenstock: "There is not price control. And again, the system was created 30 years ago." Jim Hoffer: "But isn't that unfair to the patients?" Jim Blumenstock: "Well, as I said, we are taking a look at the situation as we speak."

The New Jersey Department of Health is partly to blame for the high prices, according to a national health care research center.

Penny Mohr, Center For Health Affairs: "If the state is granting them monopoly rights that they should also be responsible for setting caps on prices."

Absent those caps or competition, many in New Jersey say they'll have to think twice before calling 911.

Joyce Zokrzewski: "If it ever happens again or I need 911 I will be afraid to call because we can't afford to have them come."

A few other New Jersey paramedic services charge about the same as MONOC, but have nowhere near the same number of lawsuits against patients.

If you have any information about this story or any other that you'd like investigated, please call our Tip-Line at 877-TIP-NEWS.