Mass. fire chief blames billing errors on computer issues

The chief said inadequate training, multitasking and other factors contributed to the errors

By George Barnes
The Telegram & Gazette

HUBBARDSTON, Mass. — Fire Chief Seth A. Knipe said he takes full responsibility for problems that occurred in billing for the Fire Department ambulance service, but believes the problem could have been handled without a police investigation.

"I'm not hiding behind anything," he said. "As chief, the buck stops here. I just would have liked to have the opportunity to fix the issue."

Chief Knipe said he made errors when he entered billing information sent to Comstar Ambulance Billing Service, which issues bills for the town ambulance and collects checks from insurance companies and individual people. Each month, Comstar sends the department a summary of accounts and the checks, which are forwarded to the town treasurer. The treasurer places the money in an account that can be voted out for any purpose, although it has been used regularly for the ambulance service costs.

"The only way money comes out of the account is through a town meeting vote," he said.

Chief Knipe said that although the state police investigation found billing errors, the investigation indicated no criminal intent on his part. "Clearly they (the state police) realized there were no financial benefits to me at all," he said.

Chief Knipe said his problems may have been the result of doing too much with too little knowledge of the billing computer system. The problems occurred after the department was told the Massachusetts Ambulance Trip Record Information System wanted monthly data from fire departments.

To address this, he said, he and another member of the department went for computer training. The first part of the training concerned installing software for the system. The second half was to be on entering the data, but the training company's server crashed and instead he received a manual . Trying to follow the directions led to confusion about entering data, he said.

Contributing to the problem was that he took over entering the data for emergency medical technicians. The town was unable to provide them with laptops for their ambulances so he did it, collecting the reports weekly. As he tried to enter the data, slow computer times caused him to work on several reports at the same time, resulting in his mixing up the data from different reports. Errors also resulted from interruptions while he was waiting for data to process, he said.

Chief Knipe said he always stapled the EMTs' handwritten reports to the billing reports so that the information would be available for cross-reference. The fire chief said if he was trying to deceive the town, it would not have made sense for him to keep the two reports together.

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