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Denton rethinking extra fee for obese

By June Naylor Rodriguez
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

DENTON -- After a day of unexpected publicity -- including calls from ABC's `Good Morning America' program and newspapers across the nation -- Denton is reconsidering its decision to charge anyone who tops 300 pounds an extra fee for an ambulance ride.

The City Council had adopted several fees this week in an attempt to boost funding for firefighters and emergency workers from $477,000 to $570,000. The $25 fee increase for the overweight ambulatory patients, council members said, would help pay costs of increased risk of injury to firefighters and paramedics who must carry the patients.

The backlash, however, has the city reconsidering.

"Apparently due to public sentiment and attention, the Fire Department will recommend to the City Council that that specific part of the new fees -- that pertaining to overweight people -- be rescinded," said Richard Foster, the city's public information officer. The basic ambulance fee is about $250.

Officials fielded telephone calls well into the night.

"I've gotten calls from newspapers in Washington, Baltimore, San Francisco," Denton Fire Chief Ross Chadwick said yesterday. "All the local television and radio news people have come to do the story."

After Councilman Mike Cochran got a call from `Good Morning America,' he called City Manager Ted Benevides to discuss the unwanted attention.

"It's not that we have a large number of people in this category, so it's not a fee that would generate a lot of money," said Cochran, who had voted against the fee at Tuesday's council meeting. "If we really had a problem with this issue and were needing to correct it, I'd possibly consider it."

Such a fee compounds an existing social prejudice against overweight people, Cochran said.

"A lot of people can't help their size," Cochran said. "I thought that since we don't have a problem here, why go in and engage in symbolizing something that will embarrass people?"

The practice apparently is accepted by insurance companies.

"It was determined that our ambulance fees hadn't been looked at since 1983, and our billing agency provided us a list of additional charges to consider that are covered by insurance companies and Medicare," Chadwick said. "This fee and other fees are those that the billing agency said were used by other fire departments."

But most area cities said they thought such a fee was uncommon.

"I thought the guys on the radio were making that up," said Mike Duncan, assistant fire chief in North Richland Hills. "I've never heard of such a fee."

Mike Haney of the Bedford Fire Department said, "I don't know any city doing that."

Richland Hills has no such charge, either. But Fire Chief Greg Tucker said he understood Denton's reasoning. "Our experience is that transporting heavier people requires extra manpower," he said.