Thousands of New Brunswickers have been taking an unfulfilled Conservative election promise into their own hands by not paying their ambulance bills, new figures show.
According to Ambulance New Brunswick, "uncollectible" bills for ambulance service jumped 60 per cent last year to just over $803,000.
That's more than 5,000 ambulance rides the agency billed for that no one paid.
$130 fee unpopular
Howard Gould did pay his $130 ambulance bill earlier this year after his son Ethan's school called 911 to deal with the 5th grader's plummeting blood-sugar levels, but Gould says he supports those who don't pay.
"Hats off to them. If I had known there were such great numbers, I may have thought differently," said Gould. "We didn't want to go to collections to make a political statement."
New Brunswick Liberals imposed a fee for ambulance service in 2009. The Conservatives condemned it and promised to eliminate it during the 2010 provincial election.
"No one should have to pay for ambulance service," then-opposition leader David Alward said during the campaign. "We believe that ambulance service is an aspect of primary care, therefore we believe it should be offered to all New Brunswickers free of charge."
Alward hasn't made good on that promise through two budgets, but many voters aren't waiting. One in five ambulance bills is now going unpaid.
Tough to collect
Ambulance New Brunswick spokeswoman Tracy Bell says the agency is doing what it can to collect, but figures show it has been an uphill fight since the election.
The increase is for the financial year ending March 31, 2012, and appeared in the company's just-released annual report.
New Brunswick Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said Friday the government still intends to eliminate the ambulance fee, but with the provincial deficit now twice as large as expected this year at $357 million, he acknowledged it's not a certainty.
"[Deficit] changes as we see here doesn't make that easier. Nevertheless our goal is still to move forward on the commitments that we've made," he said.
Ambulance services cost the New Brunswick health care system more than $94 million last year, or about $1,005 for every patient transported.
Liberals complained some people were using ambulances like a free taxi to get themselves to the hospital and imposed the $130 fee partly to recoup money and partly to discourage frivolous calls.
In the fee's first year, ambulance rides dropped by 14 per cent.
The Conservatives viewed it as unpopular with the elderly and while visiting Saint John's Loch Lomand assisted living and nursing home complex during the election, Alward condemned the fee as cruel to seniors and the poor.
"New Brunswickers should not have to weigh whether they should take an ambulance to their local hospital when in need, or pay for food that week," he said.
The pledge also appeared on page 11 of the Progressive Conservative's 2010 platform.
Health Department spokeswoman Jennifer Graham said it's not clear there is a link between the government saying the fee is wrong and the increasing numbers of people who are not paying it.
"We cannot speculate as to why people are not paying their ambulance bills," she said.