Sept. 09--ABINGDON, Va. -- Ambulances, medical supplies and even land could be up for grabs if the Saltville Rescue Squad loses its upcoming health-care fraud case in federal court.
Beginning Monday morning, prosecutors will try to wring $880,000 in reimbursements from the volunteer squad by proving it tried to bilk insurance companies out of millions of dollars. The jury trial is set to last two weeks.
A conviction of the squad as a corporation, and its former president as ringleader, would give government agents the broad choice of raiding the group's bank account while also selling off roughly $1.95 million in assets.
It would also send Saltville's town manager and volunteer fire department crews scrambling for a plan to maintain swift trips to the hospital for anyone suffering a heart attack, mangled in a car wreck or caught up in other catastrophic emergencies.
"It's a concern of everybody in Saltville," Town Manager Mike Taylor said. "We hope this will work itself out."
For now, Assistant Fire Chief Jimmy Taylor has his eyes on the rescue squad's six ambulances and trucks, each valued between $6,000 and $200,000, according to a court protective order on the squad's property and bank account. There's also a set of new-model trucks with a combined $259,000 price tag, both on order and yet to be delivered.
Taylor began considering a way for his department to branch into the medical rescue game almost as soon as news of the fraud case first broke in February.
Neighboring rescue squads and fire departments from Tannersville, Glade Spring and Chilhowie already have offered to step in if needed, local and state emergency rescue coordination officials have said.
Still, the chances of survival for a person suffering a stroke or heart attack drops dramatically if he must wait 15-20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from the next town.
A new group of rescue volunteers could team up to build a new squad from scratch. But the legal hurdles of acquiring local and state approval for a new squad charter, training members and passing state accreditation usually takes two years, explained Steve Dove, a member of Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads.
"You and I couldn't get together this weekend and just say 'let's start a rescue squad,'" Dove said.
So the spotlight returns to Saltville's volunteer fire department -- already with an approved charter -- as the fast-track solution.
Parking the ambulances in the fire department's engine bay seems to be the cheapest option, especially after adding the cost of malpractice insurance, specialized training, a durable ToughBook computer communication system and salaries for round-the-clock rescue coverage.
Yet, federal prosecutors have their eyes on the trucks, too, so it might not be a realistic option. And that's why neither the assistant chief, nor the town's officials, seem to have any concrete plans for a medical transport safety net.
"That's what nobody knows -- how much equipment they could lose," Jimmy Taylor said.
Chances are the Saltville Rescue Squad does not have enough money in its bank account to cover the $880,000 prosecutors hope to recoup from a conviction. And that means all attention likely will focus on the squad's assets.
Federal jurors will hear a story that has Saltville squad members faking $2.65 million worth of billing slips for transporting dialysis patients and sending those fraudulent bills to insurance companies from December 2010 to September 2011.
Prosecutors say squad business manger and former president Eddie Wayne Louthian Sr. masterminded the scheme with the help of member Monica Jane Hicks and raked in just short of a million dollars, the amount now targeted for reimbursement.
Hicks, of Meadowview, dropped out of the trial in June when she pleaded guilty to a single charge of health care fraud, leaving Louthian and the squad as the only defendants.
A likely clue to the fire department's shot at leftover ambulances in the wake of a guilty verdict can be gleaned from the bank account's average monthly balance -- roughly $30,000.