Published: December 04, 2012

Riverside County is two months behind schedule in studying ambulance service
changes and risks losing the chance to bid out its ambulance contract, a
supervisor warned.

Jeff Stone said Tuesday, Dec. 4, that he wants a report from Bruce Barton,
head of the county’s emergency medical services division, on how he plans to
stay on schedule with an in-depth analysis of the emergency system. County
Executive Officer Jay Orr suggested monthly reports starting next year on the
study’s progress.

The Board of Supervisors in June awarded a three-year contract extension to
American Medical Response, the private, for-profit company that has exclusive
rights to transport people to hospitals during emergencies. AMR’s pact runs
through June 30, 2015.

In granting the extension, supervisors also approved Stone’s timeline for the
emergency medical services study to be finished by March 3, 2014. By June 1 of
that year, supervisors are supposed to hold a public hearing to award a new
ambulance contract to AMR, a competitor or several ambulance providers after
bids are sought.

The new contract is expected to start July 1, 2015, and AMR is to be given a
year’s notice if the company isn’t chosen. It would be the first time in recent
memory the county solicited bids for ambulance service.

The timetable called for selecting a consultant to guide the study by
September. But the $470,125 contract with The Abaris Group wasn’t approved by
supervisors until Nov. 20.

A staff report attached to the contract stated that Abaris, based in Northern
California, was the only firm responding to the county’s request for proposals
from consultants. Six other firms said the county’s requirements were beyond
their expertise, the report read.

Speaking during Tuesday’s board meeting, Stone said he is concerned that his
timetable isn’t being followed.

“I asked for an open and transparent process that included specific broad
groups of stakeholders be involved and to hold publicly noticed meetings
(regarding the study),” he said. “As far as I know, none of these folks have
been selected (to participate), and it’s time that we step up to the plate.”

Stone added that he didn’t want the matter to drag out to the point where the
county would have to give AMR another extension instead of putting the contract
out to bid.

“We need as much public input – not less – to make sure that our EMS system
is improved and provides vital services …” Stone said.

Jose Arballo, county public health department spokesman, said the department
remains committed to the timeline of delivering a study to supervisors by March
2014. Meetings with stakeholders are expected to start in January, he said.

AMR makes money by billing patients for its services. County officials have
said AMR’s contract is worth up to $95 million annually, although the company
typically makes less than that because it can’t get full reimbursement for
everyone it serves.

Whether the contract should be put out to bid is a point of debate between
AMR and local fire officials. The Riverside County Fire Chiefs Association and
others say bidding would ensure the county gets the best ambulance service at
the lowest possible price.

AMR, which has been in the county since the mid-1990s, contends a bid process
is a waste of time and that improvements can be made easily in the existing
contract. Company officials have said AMR has spent close to $30 million since
2004 to improve service and met its response-time goals 93 percent of the time
in 2011.