When it comes to emergency medical services, the only thing that matters is getting there as quickly as possible and delivering the best care available.
Unfortunately, the debate about whether Merced County should give its exclusive contract to longtime local provider Riggs Ambulance Service or national operator American Medical Response quickly deteriorated. It's become a discussion about everything but the primary goal -- fast, quality emergency care for Merced County residents.
It's understandable how the focus got misdirected.
After all, first the county gave the contract to Riggs and then reversed course after AMR appealed. Now Riggs is protesting that reversal.
Riggs won the contract initially after receiving bonus points in the scoring for being a local provider. But the state said the local preference policy cannot be applied in this type of contract. Without those bonus points, AMR had a higher score.
On Tuesday, the Merced County Board of Supervisors will review Riggs' protest of the bidding process and is expected to vote on whether to uphold the decision to give the contract to AMR.
We think the county should hit the reset button. It's obvious that the process wasn't as transparent or well managed as it should have been. If that had been the case, the local bonus points never would have been awarded.
The supervisors don't need new proposals, but should appoint just three new evaluators -- emergency medical experts with no ties to either company or the previous process -- to review the proposals and give each side a chance to make one last public pitch. The supervisors should move quickly to get this done -- by the end of March -- and make a selection based on a truly fair and open process.
The decision of whether to dump a longtime local firm that provided essential medical care to this rural county long before anyone else was interested demands a better review than the one being used now.
But longevity shouldn't guarantee Riggs anything other than a fair process.
This is a lifesaving service being considered here and there's no room for sentimental loyalty. If Riggs can't perform the care as well as AMR or doesn't have the financial stability to provide services for a growing population, then the board should not give Riggs the contract -- no matter how painful that might be.
Riggs has already made it clear that it could lose as much as half a million dollars in the first few months of operation under the proposal submitted. Officials for Riggs say they don't expect the county to bail them out, but merely want to discuss how to make the EMS system more financially viable.
AMR, which operates in 22 California counties, says it can make a profit in Merced as well because of the benefits of volume buying. AMR also proposes to charge more -- on average about $700 per patient transport.
AMR also seems to understand how much Merced is poised to change. This isn't just about them making money now; it's also about them making money down the road, as the economy recovers and the county starts growing again. AMR also recognizes that UC Merced will be the critical driver in that development as it becomes more established.
Given that AMR was the higher scoring bidder when the local preference points were removed, why not just award the contract to AMR? Because we believe Riggs deserves another chance to prove it can offer a service of equal or better quality because the county badly bungled the bidding process. You can't award points and take them away, award a contract and then do an about-face -- all the while claiming the process was fair and clearly laid out. Clearly it wasn't.
Supervisors' primary concern must be which operator will provide the best emergency medical care to Merced County residents. The people who live here deserve it.