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Support for Competitive Ambulance Contract Grows in Riverside (Calif.)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- A growing number of local officials are urging Riverside County supervisors to competitively bid the county's contract for ambulance services.

Since last year, county officials have examined the county's process for dispatching emergency medical calls and are in talks with American Medical Response, or AMR, on a contract renewal for ambulance services.

But city leaders and other officials from throughout the region say the county should put the contract out to bid as a way to improve care, provide better response times and potentially save money.

Murrieta officials have long argued the county should seek bids, and in October the city of Temecula weighed in with support for bidding the contract. Then in December, the Riverside County Fire Chiefs' Association jumped into the debate, also in favor of opening the bidding process.

Moreno Valley is among the latest to urge the county to seek bids.

"As stewards of the city's public funds, it is also a priority to ensure that our limited resources are utilized in the most effective manner," Moreno Valley Mayor Pro Tem Bill Batey wrote to Supervisor Marion Ashley last week.

"As such, it seems only reasonable that a large contract such as that for county emergency medical services be competitively bid."

AMR, a Colorado-based company, is the exclusive ambulance provider for most cities in western Riverside County, as well as all unincorporated areas.

The company has operated in Riverside County for three decades and had its contract extended in 2004 and 2009. It is up for another three-year extension this year and is negotiating the terms of that deal with the county. The contract has never been competitively bid. The contract's value is estimated at $95 million.

Transparency Sought
In October, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors held a workshop on the emergency medical response system. At the time, several supervisors said competition is healthy and the reasons for a no-bid ambulance contract should be clear cut.

Bruce Barton, director of the county Emergency Medical Services Agency, which oversees ambulance services, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Agency spokesman Jose Arballo Jr. said negotiations with the company are ongoing. Arballo said the emergency medical services agency had hoped to come back with a new contract by January. There is no timeframe yet on when the issue will come back before supervisors, he said.

"Last year (in August) the board gave us a specific direction to come back to them with a contract with AMR," Arballo said by telephone. "There was no mention at that time of setting up a bid process. If the board decides to seek bids, then obviously we will go in that direction."

Thomas McEntee, AMR's general manager for Riverside County, did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday.

But in October, he said the company is committed to the county and has worked to improve its operations. For instance, the company is helping fund a digital link between the county and AMR that will allow ambulances to be dispatched more quickly.

In its talks with the county, the company is seeking a five-year wind-down period should supervisors decide to bid the contract. Such a provision would enable the company to recoup its investment, McEntee said at the time.

AMR would compete for the work if the county does seek bids, he said in October.

Bidding Improves Service
Some officials say the only way to truly improve the county's emergency medical response system is by opening up the process and seeking competition.

"It is not our contention that the current provider is out of compliance with the contract," Corona Fire Chief David Waltemeyer, president of the county fire chiefs association, wrote to Barton in December.

"Instead, our assertion is that the contract itself is insufficient and needs substantial modifications that cannot be accomplished with closed-door negotiations leading to a contract extension."

Among the reasons cited by those who want the county to seek bids are fines AMR has paid for arriving late to calls and the county's discussions on moving to a dispatch system that prioritizes calls based on medical need.

In recent years, AMR has paid as much as $500,000 a year in late fines. The company has said it is actively working to reduce the amount.

Bidding the contract "in the interests of transparency" also is important, wrote Batey, the Moreno Valley councilman and a professional firefighter.

Supervisor Jeff Stone agreed. In a recent interview, he said he favors opening the process up to competition.

He said he has no bias against AMR, but Riverside County can learn from others who went through similar bid processes and improved services.

"It is healthy for citizens to see that it is a transparent and open process," Stone said.

But Supervisor Bob Buster said Wednesday he remains undecided on whether to seek bids.

He said AMR is doing a good job and meeting county standards. Buster said the company is making improvements, and he is concerned about how a bid process could affect the changes - such as the prioritized dispatch system - that are under way.

"You want calmer waters, a much more stable situation when you go out and get proposals," Buster said. "It is a topic where price is important, but also the quality of the service is key. I am still in the process of sorting through everything and looking at the whole situation."


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