Rapid City asks to write off $1.7 million in unpaid ambulance bills

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Rapid City Legal and Finance Committee will consider on Wednesday, Dec. 12, a resolution to write off 2,676 unpaid ambulance bills worth more than $1.7 million that date as far back as 2006.

The Rapid City Fire Department has been the city’s lone ambulance-service provider, public or private, since 2003, when the last private ambulance company left town after struggling to break even. Now, it’s the city’s service that’s struggling.

“It’s certainly not for a lack of trying,” said Rapid City Fire Chief Rod Seals on Monday while discussing the city’s bill-collection efforts.

Of the 2,676 unpaid bills, almost 98 percent are either uncollectible because they’ve passed the state’s six-year statute of limitations or because the person who owes the money has died without an estate. Bankruptcy, incarceration and mandatory write-offs from Medicare and Medicaid denials comprise the rest. Mayor Steve Allender said the ambulance service recovered about 50 percent of what it billed, annually.

Rapid City’s ambulance service, which the city budget labels an “enterprise fund,” operates like a business. Funding for the service is derived from the fees users pay for the service.

In other South Dakota towns, Seals said, a slice of people’s property taxes go toward funding the ambulance service. But Rapid City’s high call volumes mean that, historically, enough user fees are collected to avoid a taxpayer subsidy. It’s unclear how sustainable that model will be in the future, though.