NEWBURYPORT — American Medical Response recently told city officials it is pulling out of its Boston Way location, which is forcing the city to rethink its long-term and short-term emergency response needs.
Mayor Donna Holaday said yesterday AMR will continue to answer emergency and non-emergency 911 medical calls in the short term, having come to an understanding with fire officials to perhaps leave a full ambulance team at the Greenleaf Street fire headquarters.
But with the city’s contract with AMR running out next June, officials are looking at a long-term solution.
“We just need to look at the big picture,” Holaday said.
In August, AMR New England general manager Brendan McNiff announced it would be closing various locations in the Merrimack Valley after wage concession negotiations with the National Emergency Medical Services Association union failed. To save money, AMR is consolidating its dispatching services to one central location in Natick and cutting dozens of positions.
“Unfortunately, the union declined to explore the possibility of rollbacks that would have minimized the loss of positions to the impacted areas,” McNiff wrote in an August email to affected customers. AMR Newburyport employs approximately 45 paramedics and EMTs and handles about 13,750 calls annually.
Reached yesterday, McNiff said all dispatchers and ambulances would be removed from Boston Way within the next two months.
McNiff said union concessions were sought after Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of the largest health care providers in the state, changed the way it reimbursed AMR and other ambulance service providers for trips.
According to McNiff, in an attempt to cajole AMR into a more advantageous deal, BCBS decided to send reimbursement checks directly to patients, who would then use them to pay off ambulance expenses. But McNiff said many patients hold onto the checks, leaving AMR with a budget shortfall. He estimated that $250,000 in net dollars are still in the hands of patients since BCBS altered its reimbursement practices roughly 18 months ago,
“It’s devastating, it’s absolutely devastating,” McNiff said.
BCBS Director of Public Relations Sharon Torgerson said the switch was made in an effort to rein in health care costs, citing examples of non-network ambulance services charging as much as 500 percent more than what the federal government, Medicare, pays for the exact same service.
“We estimate that these out-of-network providers cost our members and employer customers tens of millions of dollars a year. This makes no sense at a time when everyone agrees we should be doing everything we can to make health care more affordable.
“The bottom line is that this is about affordability in health care,” she said. “We cannot take a step back in the progress we’ve made in improving the affordability of health care by allowing a small group of for-profit ambulance companies to continue to charge consumers and employers excessive prices,” Torgerson said.
Also affected by AMR’s decision are the communities of West Newbury and Salisbury. Earlier this month, AMR officials met with West Newbury selectmen to discuss placing an ambulance at the Garden Street firehouse. The ambulance would be manned with AMR staff for 16 hours a day and response time wouldn’t be affected, according to AMR. Contracts with those communities are expected to expire in 2014.
In early August, local fire chiefs met with AMR representatives to discuss the structural changes. The firm assured safety officials that it would not walk away from any of its 911 contracts with the town.
To be determined is how AMR’s decision will affect Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. In December, hospital officials announced it was replacing AMR with Action Ambulance for all discharge trips. Action Ambulance has 16 different branches, including one on Graf Road in Newburyport.
Holaday said she would soon be meeting with hospital officials to discuss AMR’s decision.
Anna Jaques Hospital President Delia O’Connor said yesterday the hospital would follow the city’s lead.
“We will work with the city to dovetail as best as we can,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said the hospital’s decision to switch to Action Ambulance was based on the financial ramifications of the service being a participating BCBS provider. Asked whether the hospital has been pleased with Action Ambulance’s performance, O’Connor said it has been as proficient as AMR.
“Action has been great,” O’Connor said.
Both Holaday and Newburyport city Marshal Thomas Howard said residents will not experience any delays due to AMR’s consolidation plans. When an emergency 911 call comes in to the police department, the caller will be transferred to the Natick dispatch center in real time.
“There is no disruption of service,” Howard said.
But Ward 3 Councilor Robert Cronin, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he was concerned about whether AMR would fulfill their contractual obligations and hoped the council would soon see an amended contract.
“I have a lot of serious questions,” Cronin said.