Riggs loses new protest over AMR contract win

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 24, 2013 

— Merced County officials this week again denied Riggs Ambulance Service's protest of the county's decision to award its emergency services contract to American Medical Response.

The Jan. 22 letter gives the reasons for denying Riggs' appeal by addressing each of the longtime ambulance provider's seven claims.

Among those claims: Riggs says that county staff accepted AMR's appeal beyond the deadline, engaged in "deceptive" and "untransparent" behavior, and that removing local vendor points retroactively violates the request for proposal terms and conditions.

"County staff have used the request for proposal terms and conditions as they see fit to answer our protest," said Don Vonarx, Riggs' general manager. "They pick and choose parts of the terms and conditions as it's convenient for them to support their position."

Vonarx said removing the local vendor points awarded to Riggs changed the terms and conditions and should've prompted a new bid. "Once you change something after it's been published, you really need to start the process over," he said.

The county responded that applying local preference points is "conditional" and wouldn't apply in cases in which state or federal regulations prohibit the points. The county staff maintains this policy is outlined in the bid's terms and conditions.

A state agency denounced the application of local preference points in a September letter, saying the practice takes away from a "fair and equal process."

The Emergency Medical Services Authority's letter prompted county staff to remove the local vendor points, which account for 5 percent of Riggs' score, rendering it "exempt" from those points.

Riggs also claims that the county accepted AMR's appeal on Aug. 27, after a standard seven-day deadline.

According to bidding documents, protests must be received within seven working days after a "Notice of Intent to Award" letter is issued by the county.

Riggs officials said the letter was issued July 30, and that AMR violated the seven-day deadline when it submitted its appeal on Aug. 27.

Merced County Administrative Services Director Mark Cowart said the July 30 letter was an "intent to enter negotiations," not an award letter.

After removing the local vendor points, the county reversed its decision in October and issued an award letter to AMR on Dec. 14.

Vonarx said AMR's appeal still violated terms and conditions.

Even if the July 30 communication was not an award letter, he said, the bid's terms and conditions state that protests won't be accepted until after an award letter is issued.

This week, Riggs officials also took aim at the evaluation process, saying the five evaluators weren't given written instructions on how to score the proposals, and one had an affiliation with AMR.

Merced County Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi said the evaluators were given a scoring sheet with areas of importance. "The scoring sheet is a written document, and that's standard procedure, as well as verbal guidance," Grassi said.

Vonarx said the score breakdown is subjective and doesn't substitute for written guidelines, as were given in the last bidding process in 2003.

According to the county's response, there's no requirement for evaluators to be given "formal written instructions" on scoring.

The five evaluators participated in a conference call after submitting their scores and were asked if they had conflicts or wanted to make changes. They all said no, according to staff.

Vonarx said county staff admitted to Riggs officials during a November debriefing meeting that at least one of the five evaluators is affiliated with AMR.

Grassi said the evaluators' identities are kept confidential, according to the purchasing department's standard practice, the evaluators were screened for potential conflicts of interest.

"I can tell you that we made contact with each of the evaluators to ensure there's no conflict of interest," Grassi said. "I can tell you that all five evaluators stated there was no conflict or current affiliation with either AMR or Riggs."

Grassi said it's unknown if the evaluators had any past affiliations with either provider, and that the staff focused only on current relationships or financial interests.

The county's response to the appeal states that one member of the Proposal Review Committee had an affiliation with an emergency medical services system that contracted with AMR. But being employed by an entity that contracts with either AMR or Riggs isn't a "disqualifying conflict" because there's no financial interest in the outcome, the county said.

As far as the scoring process, Grassi said the highest-scoring provider may not necessarily win the contract.

"It's not just the total score or who has the highest score. All of the elements are taken into consideration," she said. "Both proposals met the basic requirements of the request for proposal. However, AMR was stronger in the patient care and system status areas."

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

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