NEWBURYPORT — The mayor's office yesterday confirmed ambulance provider American Medical Response is in negotiations with a not-yet-named ambulance service to take over its contract with the city.
Mayor Donna Holaday said she wasn't at liberty to discuss the ambulance service at the center of the talks, but acknowledged that whatever company takes over the contract would be based af AMR's Boston Way location.
AMR's contract with the city expires in June. Its Newburyport location employs approximately 45 paramedics and EMTs and handles about 13,750 calls annually.
The company also has contracts with West Newbury, Newbury and Salisbury to provide either primary or secondary ambulance service.
According to Holaday, AMR is looking to sell off all its Massachusetts contracts in an effort to reel in costs that have left the company in a deep monetary hole.
AMR has seen its financial situation drastically altered for the worse over the course of several months. The downspiral began in December when officials of Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport 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.
In August, AMR New England general manager Brendan McNiff announced the company 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.
McNiff, who did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday, said in September all dispatchers and ambulances would be removed from Boston Way within the next two months.
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.
“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.
According to McNiff, in an attempt to force 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,
Sharon Torgerson, director of public relations for BCBS, 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.
An Action Ambulance spokesman yesterday said his company is not in negotiations with AMR regarding its Newburyport operations.
Another regionally based ambulance service, Trinity Ambulance, has reached out to both Holaday and AMR about taking over the contract, according to Christopher Dick, director of business development and marketing.
"We are very interested in doing business with the city of Newburyport. We're talking, but we're definitely not in negotiaions right now," Dick said.
Based in Lowell, Trinity Ambulance currently serves Groveland, Haverhill, Newton, N.H., and a handful of other commubnities in southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
News of AMR's plans to pull out of Newburyport and more recently pursue selling off its contract has left some city councilors questioning whether it would reneg on its contract with the city. But Holaday said that a meeting with McNiff and other AMR officials last week left no doubt in her mind that the ambulance provider wouldn't leave the city in a lurch.
Holaday did say that a proposal to house an AMR ambulance inside the Fire Department's Greenleaf Street station never got off the ground and was quickly abandoned. "It doesn't give us the level of comfort and support the city needs," she said.
Ward 3 Councilor Robert Cronin, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said yesterday he was unaware of AMR's proposal to sell its contract to another provider.
"Hopefully, as this process moves forward, the mayor will provide us with some details as to what direction emergency services is going. Paramount is that there would be no interrupts in service in the city, because obviously this is key to the safety of the citizens," Cronin said.
Retired firefighter and Councilor At-large Richard Sullivan Jr. said the lack of communication between councilors and other city officials, including Holaday and Fire Chief Stephen Cutter, has left him with many unanswered questions. Sullivan said he was aware of last week's meeting with AMR, but as of yesterday had no idea what took place.
"As a city councilor, I'm very frustrated you can't get an answer," Sullivan said.