Merced County reopens ambulance bidding

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 29, 2013 

— The Merced County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to reopen the bidding process for an exclusive contract to provide emergency ambulance services in the county.

The move cancels the decision to select Denver-based American Medical Response, and gives longtime local provider Riggs Ambulance Service a second chance to bid for the contract.

Riggs officials applauded the unanimous decision, while an AMR representative said it was politics at its worst.

"They literally put lives at risk and let down their community," said Jason Sorrick, an AMR spokesman. "They took the interest of a single person, his financial situation and his relationships with the board, over the 260,000 residents in Merced County."

The motion to cancel the current bid and start over was put on the table by District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh, who said the bidding process appeared to have a few "bumps in the road" with the number of adjustments and changes.

"It seems to me that in light of some of the issues, going back out to bid is appropriate," he said.

Walsh suggested that certain issues -- including critical care transport, reliance on Westside Ambulance District, so-called Status 0 events and mutual aid requests -- need to be more clearly defined in the new bidding guidelines.

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O'Banion agreed with Walsh by seconding the motion Tuesday.

"Staff has done an excellent job, but there are questions and it warrants going back out," he said. "This is going to take time, but I want to make sure we get it right."

O'Banion clarified that reopening the request for proposal process will allow other companies to bid for the county's ambulance contract -- not just Riggs and AMR. "I feel we need to go back out and open it up, and let anyone who wants to participate make a bid," he said.

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo said he agreed with O'Banion and Walsh's sentiments, while commending both AMR and Riggs and calling them "two quality companies."

District 3 Supervisor Linn Davis said the two companies were divided by only 1 percent, making it clear that both providers had "excellent proposals."

Davis agreed the process was unclear, especially the scoring of the two proposals. "I think the scoring needs to be better defined," he said. "I think untimely letters and local preference was an issue."

Chairwoman and District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey concurred with her colleagues, while thanking AMR for addressing the ongoing concerns of the Westside Ambulance District.

"You folks stepped up to the plate with your proposal and addressed those problems," she said. "I felt that AMR gave a very good proposal and addressed the future of Merced County."

But Kelsey said the process could've been smoother and wasn't helped by multiple changes in county staff, including a new health director, chief executive officer and local emergency medical services manager.

Kelsey said while having a local preference policy is nice, companies need to "bring it" and not rely on winning because they're local.

Before the unanimous vote to reopen the bidding, the board voted 4-1 to deny Riggs' most recent protest -- the initial step in Tuesday's review of the issue.

Pedrozo voted to uphold the protest. "There were a few valid points in the protest," he said. "If this were to go to court, it would be better than denying the protest completely. I just think that it would be easier to defend in a court of law."

But in the end, all the members of the board voted to start over.

Riggs Ambulance Service General Manager Don Vonarx called Tuesday's decision a "victory," saying it remedied the company's concerns about the bidding process.

"The request for proposal process in itself was inherently flawed from the beginning and the application of it was also flawed," he said. "That created an unfair and unequal process."

AMR officials said it's not clear whether the company will bid again, but it will "look at all options."

Merced County Administrative Services Director Mark Cowart said staff will work with a consultant to craft a new request for proposal over the next 15 months, with the new contract going into effect May 1, 2014.

"We want to make sure we take enough time to be thorough," Cowart said. "The county has every intention of releasing a fair request for proposal that would be reasonable, and we hope AMR and other vendors will want to participate after they see it."

Cowart noted there will be two requests for proposals -- one for the consultant to evaluate the process and assist the county, and another for the actual contract.

Riggs' current contract is set to expire April 30, but county officials will likely extend it for another year while the new bid is being prepared.

The cost of the new request for proposal will be paid for by the winning bidder in May 2014, Cowart said.

But local vendor points likely won't be included in the next bidding process, county officials said.

Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi said the California Emergency Medical Services Authority's opinion made it clear that the points don't provide a "fair and competitive process."

"If the local points are in there, then it's highly likely we won't have an approved request for proposal from EMSA (the state emergency services agency), but that's just my assumption," Grassi said. "So my expectation is that it will be something they'll be looking for and not allowing again."

Cowart agrees. "Based on input from state, I would assume local preference would not be included in the next request for proposal."

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


TIMELINE

APRIL 2, 2012: Request for proposal and bidding documents become available

APRIL 17, 2012: Bidder's conference to answer questions from potential bidders

MAY 11, 2012: Deadline for written questions

MAY 30, 2012: Deadline for proposals

JULY 30, 2012: Letter is issued to Riggs Ambulance Service as the "most responsive bidder."

AUG. 1, 2012: American Medical Response requests a debriefing and public records act request to see the bid's scoring.

AUG. 27, 2012: AMR issues a protest, saying the county is prohibited from using local preference as a scoring criteria.

SEPT. 7, 2012: California Emergency Medical Services Authority issues a response letter to county, saying local preference points aren't allowed.

OCTOBER 2012: Riggs' issues letter to county staff, informing them of changes that include negative revenue in the first few months.

OCT. 22-23 2012: County issues a letter to Riggs and AMR, informing them of the decision to uphold AMR's protest, withdraw July letter to Riggs, and begin contract negotiations with AMR.

NOVEMBER 2012: Riggs issues their first appeal, which was denied by county on Nov. 21.

DEC. 14, 2012: County issues Notice of Intent to Award letter to AMR.

DEC. 18, 2012: Emotional testimony is heard during the Board of Supervisor's public hearing about the issue.

DEC. 20, 2012: Riggs' issues a second protest to the county.

JAN. 22, 2012: County denies Riggs' second protest.

JAN. 29, 2012: Riggs' appeal is denied by the Merced County Board of Supervisors in a 4-1 vote, but they vote unanimously to cancel the current bid and start over.

-- Ramona Giwargis

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