Fight brews over Merced County ambulances

Longtime provider called non-local, files appeal

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 4, 2012 

— Merced County has withdrawn its contract offer to Riggs Ambulance Service in favor of American Medical Response, after the longtime ambulance provider lost its bid due to the loss of "local vendor" points.

The withdrawal of the offer potentially severs a relationship of more than 60 years between Merced County and Riggs, although the issue will go before the Board of Supervisors before it's final.

Every 10 years, the county is required to pick its ambulance service provider by issuing a request for proposal -- a process that allows agencies interested in providing services to apply through a bidding process. After receiving scores by five evaluators, each provider ends up with a total number of points out of 400.

This year, two bidders competed for the Merced County contract: Riggs and AMR.

According to county documents, AMR received a final score of 364.8, compared to Riggs' score of 360.6 -- only after Riggs lost 18 points, or 5 percent, in local preference points. These are additional points awarded to local vendors because of their "in-depth" understanding of the area.

The 18-point loss to Riggs' cumulative score gave AMR a four-point lead.

The county sent a letter to both AMR and Riggs in October, informing them of the decision to withdraw the offer from Riggs and enter contract negotiations with AMR.

Contract awarded

Three months earlier, on July 30, the county had awarded Riggs the contract, sending the family-owned company a letter of intent.

"Basically, the county notified us that we were the winner (in July), then they reversed the decision," said Don Vonarx, Riggs' general manager. "We feel the entire process has been grossly flawed and we need to start over again."

AMR protested the county's original decision to pick Riggs by appealing to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority, whose responsibility is to "ensure a fair competitive process is utilized."

AMR claimed in their protest the county is prohibited from using local preference as a scoring criteria.

"It's simply not allowed by the state to offer a local preference by points," said Jason Sorrick, Spokesman with AMR's Western Region. "It provides a disservice to the community because it awards a contract based on location -- not because they're offering the best system."

The state's Emergency Medical Services Authority recommended local points should not be used in scoring, saying they "do not provide a fair and equal process for otherwise qualified providers who wish to bid."

After Merced County withdrew its offer to Riggs, the company also appealed to EMSA, asking to reconsider the decision. "What we've requested of Merced County is the same thing that AMR requested -- to toss out the entire RFP and start over," Vonarx said.

But county officials haven't responded to that request, according to Vonarx.

Even if AMR does become the county's next ambulance provider, the transition probably wouldn't be immediate.

Vonarx said Merced County officials and Riggs are currently negotiating a contract extension that would last until April.

County officials haven't said when the Board of Supervisors will vote on the contract, although Vonarx expects it will be in January.

Historically speaking, Vonarx said, Merced County hasn't paid Riggs for ambulance services. In return, the county agreed to give Riggs the exclusive rights to its contract.

Kraig Riggs, president of Riggs Ambulance Service, said he's disappointed Merced County is on its way to choosing a "for-profit, multinational" company that he believes will probably charge more for service and employ fewer local employees.

Riggs also said his company estimates 45 of their 130-person work force would be laid off if AMR took over, particularly the company's billing and management team.

AMR officials such as Sorrick, on the flip side, say they plan to hire a majority of Riggs' work force, if and when the transition happens. "(Riggs') EMTs and paramedics have first right to the positions, as long as their certifications are up to date and they pass their background checks," Sorrick said.

Sorrick added that AMR is looking for a location in Merced to set up operations for administrative staff. AMR officials have discussed a contract with a local Ford dealership to service the ambulance company's vehicles.

"These are good people and we certainly want them to know that they're definitely going to have a job," Sorrick said. "They have nothing to worry about. For many of them, it will be an opportunity to advance their career."

A six-decade history

The sight of Riggs ambulances at the scene of emergencies has been a familiar one for more than six decades in Merced County.

Riggs has been the exclusive ambulance provider in Merced County since 1948.

President Kraig Riggs said his company subcontracted with Sierra Medical Services Alliance five years ago. SEMSA is a not-for-profit company that handle's Riggs' finances, revenues and accounts payable.

Riggs said the move was to save money and jobs.

"It helps keeps prices lower and prevents us from sending profits out of Merced," Riggs said, adding that he's not planning to sell the company to SEMSA. "Without the subcontract, it would be impossible to maintain current employee levels and survive."

Vonarx said the partnership with SEMSA doesn't change anything the public sees -- including logos, uniform or community outreach -- but it does provide extra opportunities.

"As a partnership with SEMSA, we could be eligible for nonprofit grant opportunities," Vonarx said. "Plus, the money we're saving by not paying certain federal taxes stays right here in the community."

The proposals from Riggs and AMR aren't public record and won't be released until a letter of intent is issued.

Still, Riggs officials said they're not going to let AMR receive the contract without a fight. Vonarx said Riggs' management team plans to be at the Board of Supervisors meeting to protest the process and share their concern.

On the other hand, AMR said they're pleased to have the opportunity to serve Merced County residents.

"We believe that we made a superior bid within that proposal." Sorrick said. "Some parts of the county have been underserved and we can provide more efficient resources."

Regardless of the outcome, Kraig Riggs said it won't change his company's level of commitment to county residents. "No matter what happens, we're here for the residents as long as we can be," he said.

AMR is headquarted in Colorado, and the company serves 31 California counties, including San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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