Locals will suffer because of politicians’ mistaken changes to the county’s ambulance system

When politicians make a mistake, who suffers the consequences?

It’s usually tax-paying citizens who pay the price, and in one case it could have a dramatic impact on your health if you need emergency medical transportation.

Recently the Board of Supervisors unanimously chose to award a 10-year ambulance services contract to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Government watchers weren’t surprised because the county had previously procured 35 new ambulances in anticipation that the Fire Department would prevail in the competition.

But initially it didn’t turn out that way. The Board of Supervisors overturned the award to American Medical Response (AMR) and found a way to give it to the County Fire Department (“Emergency fight,” Sept. 28).

In response, AMR, the provider chosen during the first open competition by the Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services Agency, filed a formal protest contesting the award the following day. This is not an uncommon response by companies that lose an important contract; in this case AMR had been the provider since 1980.

A recent Noozhawk headline sums it up this way, “County says ambulance system would be ‘thrown into chaos’ if court grants injunction in AMR suit,” (Nov. 21). Apparently, the county is irked because AMR exercised its right to have its case heard in court.

In an earlier report, Noozhawk wrote that Sean Russell of Global Medical Response, AMR’s parent company, said, “The board has effectively given the Fire District an exclusive right to provide ambulance service when it did not have the authority to do so,” (“AMR accuses county of violating state law by denying its ambulance services permit, approving County Fire’s,” Sept. 26)

In part, the state Health and Safety Code specifies that “each county developing such a program [emergency medical service (EMS)] shall designate a local EMS agency which shall be the county health department, an agency established and operated by the county, an entity with which the county contracts for the purposes of local emergency medical services administration,” (Division 2.5, Section 1797.200).

Noozhawk continues, “County attorneys argued the supervisors were justified approving County Fire’s permits and denying AMR’s application. If AMR’s request to overturn the ordinance and decision is granted, ‘the county’s ambulance system will be thrown into chaos,’ threatening lives and wasting public money, they wrote.”

County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said in a court declaration that the department has already spent millions of dollars on its plan to “go live” in March and has a daily to-do list to make it happen in time.

This dustup is years in the making; the firefighters union has always contended that County Fire could provide quicker response than AMR; however, there are no metrics available to prove that claim. County Fire has added an emergency medical component to its response capability and employs both emergency medical technicians and paramedics at most fire stations and has ambulances stationed in Cuyama, the Lompoc unincorporated area, and UCSB.

And it’s true that during multiple service calls, the available AMR ambulance fleet is frequently overtaxed and patients must wait several minutes before an ambulance arrives. This is almost a daily occurrence in Lompoc as the County Fire ambulance responds into the city because AMR is not available. In the case of serious traumatic injury or heart attack, a delayed response can have an adverse impact on the time needed for the patient to recover.

The Board of Supervisors may have had some legitimate concerns about AMR’s proposal, but when subjected to an independent analysis, AMR’s proposal was deemed more responsive to the EMS Agency request for proposals (RFP) than the County Fire submittal; thus, the EMS agency—the folks responsible as described in the Health and Safety Code—awarded the contract to AMR.

How will all this turn out? Well, the Board of Supervisors created this situation by usurping the authority of the EMS Agency while ignoring the third-party independent analysis, so it’s a little late to be getting worried about the potential impact of a court ordered injunction. If they had concerns with the substance of the RFP, they should have made their concerns known to the EMS Agency before the RFP was released to providers for a competitive bid.

The Board of Supervisors’ political decision could have some serious consequences. Who will suffer if the ambulance system is thrown into chaos? Every person who needs emergency medical transportation until the matter is resolved.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send a letter for publication to [email protected].

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