Belmont writes off $182k worth of bad debt from ambulance-run fees

BELMONT — This town's Fire Department may be the first in New Hampshire to switch its ambulance-run billing company from Comstar to Enhanced Management, Inc. a limited liability company based in Pennsylvania.

As part of the switch, selectmen also voted reluctantly to "write off" as noncollectable, $180,898.22 in past due bills — an amount that has been accumulating for years.

As it stands now, Belmont, like most communities in New Hampshire, use Comstar — a Mass.-based company that subcontracts billing for ambulance service in a community. The billing rate is set by the individual community and those rates are typically based on Medicare and Medicaid payment schedules.

Fire Chief Dave Parenti and Administrator Jeanne Beaudin told selectmen on Monday that their recommendation to switch billing providers stems from what they consider a chronically low collection rate of about 67-percent — meaning Comstar collects 67-percent of what the town is owed in ambulance fees.

Comstar has been charging Belmont 5 percent of the amount collected — a fee that was 6.5-percent, according to Parenti, but which was negotiated down after he became chief five years ago.

The new billing company, Enhanced, charges 8 percent but has told administrators that with its enhanced technology to find and bill many of the people who are delinquent, the amount it collects annually will offset the $5,081 in additional fees the town can expect to pay.

To do this, Enhanced would have to increase the collection rate of 67 percent to 69 percent. Other local communities have said that Comstar collects on average between 67- and 70-percent of ambulance fees billed.

Up until now, Belmont selectmen have been reluctant to "write off" the ever accumulating amount of money that goes uncollected by the town for ambulance billings. A few months ago, Parenti reported that Comstar uses a secondary bill collector called FFR for the so-called "dead beat" accounts but its collections rates are miniscule at best.

One of the key problems, identified by Parenti in previous meetings, is that Comstar bills the insurer for the money but then often sends the claim check to the patient.

Enhanced has said it would send bills to insurers as well as notices to customers reminding them that they are responsible for the balance not paid by their insurer. He added that Enhance will work with customers to set up payment accounts and will accept credit cards — something Comstar doesn't do.

Parenti estimates that on average each ambulance run costs about $1,100 and between $400 and $500 of it is reimbursable by Medicaid or Medicare. He said the collection percentages from private insurers is much higher. The balance remains the obligation of the patient.

Selectman Jon Pike agreed with the new approach but asked Parenti to keep the board up-to-date on the delinquent billings and not let them grow to the point where they reach nearly $200,000.

Parenti reminded Pike that he was the one who first brought the uncollectables to the board's attention when he first came to Belmont but the board then was averse to writing off the past dues as bad debt.

With Monday's vote, Parenti said he will begin with Enhance after giving Comstar appropriate notice.

2 women congratulated for completing daunting Recovery Court program

LACONIA — Melissa Winsor and Crystal Boisvert finished a two-and half-year long quest to get sober when they graduated together from Recovery Count yesterday.

But with their certificates and their sobriety, both move forward knowing their fellow students, the community, and all the people who donated their time to the state's only non-government funded "drug court" program will be there with them.

"Melissa, Crystal," said keynote speaker Alida Millham of Gilford, "You are to be congratulated."

Millham, a former state representative and chair of the Belknap County delegation, said she's seen a lot of changes in her years and Recovery Court is one of the best of them.

"This will prepare you for the next steps of your life," she said.

Millham told them that the five key things she has seen them show is "opportunity" to take advantage of a program that could help them changes their lives, "commitment" for participating and making though the hard and challenging times, "responsibility" for owning up to their past lives and embracing their new lives, "patience" for persevering knowing it wouldn't be easy, and "resiliency" for facing their lives ahead knowing all the road blocks it will bring.

Piloted by 4th Circuit Court Judge Jim Carroll, Public Defender Jessie Friedman, Laconia City Prosecutor Jim Sawyer, and Jacqui Abikoff of Horizons Counseling Center in 2012, Recovery Court was soon embraced by other members of the corrections community including County Attorney Melissa Guldbrandsen, the Department of Probation and Parole, Belknap County Corrections Supervisor Daniel Ward, Genesis Behavioral Health, Brian Loanes of Restorative Justice and other community partners.

To qualify for Recovery Court, a person has to be charged with a serious crime and admit that drug addiction has led them to their low spot. If they complete the program the underlying charge is wiped clean.

Winsor is the mother of four who began the Recovery Court when it began and learned she was pregnant. Judge Carroll said she had her setbacks along the way but each time brought herself and her son James back to the group.

"I'll miss you and James," said Carroll as he held James, now a toddler, while Winsor accepted her certificate from Abikoff.

While she was too overcome to speak, Boisvert wasn't.

"This was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," she said.

"I'm not proud of some of the mistakes I've made but now I like myself and who I am today," she added.

Boisvert will continue as a mentor, occasionally teaching a class to other Recovery Court members about cognitive behavior.

Abikoff said that early on Boisvert slipped but soon got back on the road to recovery. She was asked to create and teach a class about congitive behavior for when she returned to the group session the next week.

"She came back with a plan, a back-up plan and a back-up plan for the back-up plan," said Abikoff, noting she had also outlined three different ways to teach her assigned subject to her peers in case the first two ways didn't work.

A special recognition was also given to Judge Willard "Bud" Martin who has helped recovery court financially.

Carroll asked for people in the community to consider Recovery Court as part of their own mission. He said volunteers are welcome, contributions are needed, and for those business people who can, he asked them to consider Recovery Court graduates for jobs.

Importance of high school diploma stressed by soon-to-be graduates of the Laconia Academy

LACONIA — Members of the School Board were told last night by a 50-year-old man from Franklin who is scheduled to receive his diploma from Laconia Academy in June that it's important for young people to remember that there's no substitute for a high school diploma.
Gary Bleggi said that he dropped out of Franklin High School in the 1980s and went into the military but never went back to school.
He said that he decided to return to school to get his diploma after having been challenged by his son, who spent an extra year and a half going back to school to get his diploma, to take that important step.
''I was out of work but used the GI Bill to attend Lakes Region Community College get my CDL (commercial drivers license) and took a welding class at Laconia Adult Education,'' says Bleggi, who said that he is now employed full-time as a truck driver but spends three nights a week taking classes which will allow him to earn his high school diploma.
He said that he was passed over for one job as a commercial driver because he lacked a high school diploma, even though the company wanted very much to hire him. ''They were going to let me continue with night school but realized that they had advertised for someone with a GED or high school diploma and felt they couldn't wait until I graduated to fill the job. It's my opinion that a GED is almost useless and that the person with a diploma is going to win every time,'' said Bleggi.
He said that his current employer ''has been great to me'' and sees to it that he gets out of work early enough for him to attend the night classes at Laconia High School. ''It's not easy going back to school when you're 50 years old but it sure is worth the extra effort,'' said Bleggi.
Also speaking highly of the Laconia Academy program offered by the Laconia Adult Education Program was 20-year-old Chris Ennis, who is also scheduled to receive his diploma in June.
He said that he started working at an early age and worked instead of attending high school. He later got a job at the Boys and Girls Club in Laconia where he worked for three years. He currently works full-time at Baron Machine in Laconia and has been encouraged by his employer to take part in the academy program.
"I appreciate the program and how it has helped me. The teachers have been very helpful. With what I'm learning maybe I can be a manager at the machine shop some day and make more money,'' says Ennis, who noted that he has taken classes with several people who are in their 50s and sees what a difference the education they are receiving is making differences in their lives.
Both Bleggi and Ennis were invited to speak about their experiences by LHS Adult Education Program Director Peggy Selig, who said that total enrollment in courses offered by he program has been over 1,500 this school year.
She said that Laconia Academy, which has 84 students this year, is the fourth largest diploma program of its kind in the state. There also 91 people enrolled in Adult Basic Education programs, 58 in the Adult Learning Services program, 34 enrolled in English as a Second Language and a total of 57 (29 in electrical and 28 in plumbing) enrolled in the four-year Electrical and Plumbing programs.
''We used to have 150 a year in those programs before the recession and we're finally starting to see them grow again,'' said Selig.
She said that 530 people took courses offered by adult education in the fall and 666 in the winter courses, for a total of 1,196 this year. She said that one Chinese cooking course was so popular that she had to break it up into two classes on different nights of the week.
She attributed the large increase in second semester enrollment to the harsh winter weather, ''It was an awful winter and people had cabin fever.''
She said that one of the more popular courses this year has been welding, which attracted 60 participants and noted that five employees of Baron Machine took adult education courses this winter.

Zoning board says no to 'Pecker' the rooster

LACONIA — With one dissenting vote, the Zoning Board of Adjustment last night denied the Leroux family a variance that would enable them to keep "Pecker," their pet rooster, at their home at 58 North Street in Lakeport.

The rooster was brought to the city's attention when a neighbor complained about crowing.

Jeffrey Leroux told the board that he was unaware of the zoning regulations when he purchased the rooster at the Sandwich Fair as a pet for his wife Bridgette, just as his father Armand did for his mother Mary Ann years ago. He explained that the rooster lives in the house, where he plays with the family's dogs.

Armand Leroux said, "I don't see the big issue. The rooster makes no more noise than a barking dog. He's definitely a pet."

Lorraine Carrignan, Jeffrey's mother-in-law, confessed she was initially uneasy, but said she was taken when "Pecker" jumped on his cage, danced for me and talked to me. He's like a baby."

Dan Ouellette, the neighbor who complained about the rooster to the Planning Department, said flatly "it's a noise issue." He said that he lives 150 feet away and heard the rooster crowing in December, when the windows were closed. "If I hadn't heard the rooster crowing," he insisted, "I wouldn't have complained."

Board member Suzanne Perley stressed that when the Zoning Task Force researched the question of keeping chickens in residential zones, it found that while several municipalities permit small flocks, all forbid keeping roosters because of the noise they make.

Kate Geraci, an alternate member of the board, suggested that the rooster was a pet, not a farm animal kept for agricultural purposes. But, Planning Director Shanna Saunders disagreed, explaining that the department ruled that by keeping the rooster the Leroux family was engaged in an agricultural use prohibited in the residential zone.

Steve Bogert, chairman of board, said that while he sympathized with the family, their application for a variance failed to meet any of the six criteria necessary. Michael Foote of the ZBA, said simply "it is emotionally driven, not practically driven."

Only Orrie Gibbs dissented when the ZBA denied the variance by a vote of 4 to 1. She said that the rooster is a pet and no more of a nuisance than a barking dog.