Billing Mrs. Fossett

Private insurance is a great idea, and not even a particularly new one.

If you or your parents grew up in a small town, chances are you’re familiar with the volunteer fire department, or the volunteer ambulance company.

Many a rural community couldn’t afford these services on a professional basis, so volunteers filled the gap. Once a year, a representative came knocking at your door. You could contribute either your time, or some cash, receiving an appropriate window decal in exchange. Those who, in effect, “bought the insurance” could then call on the volunteer firemen or the local ambulance in time of need, and receive those services free.

Those who failed to join were still free to call if grandpa had chest pains or if a brush fire got out of control by the trash barrel. But they’d be billed the actual costs.

The system worked fairly well. Because it avoided the coercion of involuntary levies, it could be well worth adapting to more modern conditions.

But it’s not the system currently in use in these parts. We have tax-supported fire and ambulance services. And that system extends to search and rescue.

Last Sept. 3, multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett took off from his friend Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, south of Yerrington, on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight. He never came back.

A month-long ground and air search of the remote 20,000-square-mile area by the National Guard and Civil Air Patrol failed to turn up any sign of Fossett or his small plane. An Illinois judge declared Mr. Fossett legally dead on Feb. 15. Mr. Fossett is believed to have left an estate worth more than $10 million.

The state of Nevada figures it incurred a $687,000 search bill, even after Mr. Hilton, the hotel magnate, voluntarily sent in a $200,000 check to cover some of the costs.

Now, a spokesman for Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons says the state — facing a fiscal crunch — will bill Mr. Fossett’s widow for that $687,000.

If welfare recipients who call an ambulance merely to take them to the hospital to pick up a prescription were going to start receiving bills — and were actually expected to pay — this might mark the beginning of a healthy trend toward holding people responsible for their own choices. But in fact, the Lyon County Sheriff’s Department checked Mr. Fossett’s credit cards and bank records, looking for evidence he’d put rescue workers to unnecessary expense as part of a plot to “fake” his own disappearance. And no such evidence could be found.

State Emergency Management Director Frank Siracusa says issuance of such a bill departs from long-standing tradition. “We do not charge the rich or the poor,” he said Tuesday. “There is no precedent where government will go after people for costs just because they have money to pay for it. You get lost, and we look for you. It is a service your taxpayer dollars pay for. … We would do the same thing for anybody. If you have a fire, we fight the fire. We don’t charge.”

Mr. Siracusa is not entirely correct. Some jurisdictions certainly have been known to charge part of the costs run up by those whose behavior leads to wide-scale searches. But the justification is usually that such resources were tied up unnecessarily by a prank or fraud.

If Gov. Gibbons can articulate a consistent policy that would lead to the Fossett estate being billed — in a state where no one would dream of billing a poor family for the cost of seeking a loved one’s body after a drowning in a Nevada lake or stream, say — he should articulate it.

If everyone is to be billed — if small-plane pilots are to be advised of this new policy in advance and given a chance to buy insurance against such an eventuality — fine. Though we can imagine the outcry the next time a Nevada family fails to call for help in locating a senile grandparent who has wandered off into the desert until it’s too late because “It would have cost too much.”

Otherwise, it’s hard not to figure the state is merely “going for the deep pockets,” here. And that’s unacceptable. Just because she’s now presumably well-heeled is no reason to bill Mrs. Fossett for something that anyone else would get for free.

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