By Tony Lopez

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A woman who is battling cancer and caring for her sick parents was shocked when she opened up a bill after calling 911 recently.

The Sacramento County woman didn’t know what was happening that day of the 911 call, but she knew she needed help.

“Found myself in the living front of the front door on my back looking up…not knowing where I was at,” said Monta Barnes. “I couldn’t move any part of me.”

What showed up in front of her Sacramento County home came as a surprise. There was no fire call, but a Sac Metro Fire truck arrived on scene first before an ambulance.

“And when they came in I asked him why and he said, well we’re first responder,” she said.

A paramedic on board the truck took Monta’s temperature and blood pressure. Then, when the ambulance arrived less than five minutes later, those paramedics took over and took her to the hospital.

A few days after her health emergency, which turned out to be low blood sugar, Monta was hit with a first-responder bill from Metro Fire.

She expected the ambulance bill, which was more than $1,500 and paid for by insurance.

But the $275 first responder fee for a fire truck she didn’t ask for was the last thing the cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy and taking care of her elderly parents needed to see.

“I called them when I got the bill because I was alarmed, and I wanted to know what they were billing me for,” she said.

She didn’t pay it.

“I have the utmost respect for firemen and policemen—I shake their hands when I’m out—I thank them but this is unjustified,” she said.

When she got a past-due notice, she called CBS13. We went straight to the fire department to get answers from fire Capt. Michelle Eidam.

“The first responder fee is a cost-recovery measure that was initiated in 2011,” she said.

It’s used to absorb the cost of equipment and personnel that used to be covered by property tax fees that fell during the housing bust. Fire agencies went looking for other sources of cost recovery, and Metro Fire chose to implement the $275 first-responder fee for every 911 EMS call.

But Eidam says it’s not about the money, rather the level of service. With at least one paramedic on every fire truck, if that person can reach the patient first, lives can be saved.

“The first person walking in can give you the highest level of treatment that we can provide,” she said. “So getting the fastest response time is critical.”

Monta didn’t think her situation was critical, but Eidam says there’s no way for their first responders to know how dangerous a situation is until they get on scene.

When Monta called the billing company used by Metro Fire, she was told.

“Well you’ll need to take care of it because we don’t take Medi-Cal and Medicare,” she said.

That was a mistake.

While it’s true certain types of insurance don’t pay for first-responder fees, Metro Fire can and will waive that cost under certain conditions.

“If somebody calls us and it’s a legitimate hardship and they can show a legitimate hardship, we’ll waive that fee,” Eidam said.

That was the case with Monta, and her fee was waived.

“We don’t ever want someone to go through what this patient..this woman had to go through,” Eidam said.

Sac Metro isn’t alone when it comes to charging fees. The City of Folsom charges $225 if you need a paramedic, and Sacramento City Fire charges $96 if someone is transported to the hospital. Most insurance will cover the costs.

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