MERCED — Merced County's contract with Riggs Ambulance Service is set to expire Aug. 31 the 10-year anniversary of its commencement but that's not the only change looming ahead.
The county will also lose its exclusive operating agreement, which ensures Riggs is the only provider of ambulance service in Merced County.
Without an extension to the current agreement, any qualified ambulance provider can run a service in Merced County after August, according to Tom McGinnis of the state Emergency Medical Services Authority.
"If the zone is not exclusive, any other provider that meets the county's requirements is allowed to take part in the market's calls," McGinnis said. "It means that any qualified provider should have a right to enter the marketplace."
Out of 338 ambulance zones in California, 201 are operated under an "exclusive" status, McGinnis said. About 76 of those are exclusive through a competitive bidding process, which is the case with Merced County.
After approving the county's annual EMS plan update on March 21, the state EMS Authority noted, "If a new competitive process has not been completed by that date (Aug. 31), the EMS Authority will recognize the County of Merced as a non-exclusive zone."
If multiple ambulance companies came to Merced, the county would have to authorize each one and provide oversight on its procedures, McGinnis said.
The emergency medical calls could be distributed using a rotation schedule or geographic zones to ensure each provider gets its share of calls, he added.
Since exclusivity agreements are set up by the county's local emergency medical services agency, extension requests must come from the county.
An extension has not yet been requested by Merced County, according to Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi.
"One of the things on our 'to do' list is to get with staff at the state EMS Authority to determine what our options are," Grassi said.
County officials began meeting with the consultant group last month, Fitch & Associates, who will write the documents outlining the bidding process called a request for proposal.
Waiting on a timeline
Grassi said the county will request an extension from the state agency, as soon as they have a better idea of when the bidding documents will be ready.
"Since we just got the contract approved (with Fitch & Associates), I wanted to wait until we had more firm timelines," Grassi added. "We didn't want to call the state until we knew when we expect to have a request-for-proposal draft date."
An April 18 letter obtained by Sun-Star under a public records request shows Riggs Ambulance Service's desire to extend the exclusivity agreement.
Kraig Riggs, president of Riggs Ambulance Service, wrote to the state EMS Authority: "During this delicate bid period, it is critical for the EMS system to maintain service delivery stability without interruptions or service delivery changes, in order to protect sound patient care and system performance.
"Any interruption to service or changes in the system could negatively affect "these critical services," Riggs writes.
Riggs Ambulance Service General Manager Steve Melander declined an interview with the Sun-Star, but submitted the following written statement:
"An exclusive operating agreement is a critical component of our EMS system to ensure seamless quality medical care and transportation for the citizens and visitors of Merced County.
"We have the utmost faith in county leadership that the issue will be resolved and the EOA will remain in place throughout the (request for proposal) process."
Klark Staffan, vice president and chief operating officer of Sierra Medical Services Alliance, Riggs' nonprofit partner, declined comment.
County officials said they agree with extending the exclusive operating agreement until the bidding process is completed and a new contract is awarded.
"We'd like to be able to maintain that status as we go through the process," Grassi said. "I think just for stability and for continuing our services to the public."
Once the extension request is received by the state EMS Authority, there's no guarantee it will be approved.
"If we were presented with a request for an extension, we would review it based on its merit at the time," McGinnis said. "It's a case-by-case basis."
American Medical Response initially won the ambulance contract last year, but the decision was overturned by the county supervisors on Jan. 29.
Jason Sorrick, AMR spokesman, said the company is willing to help if an exclusive agreement isn't extended, but won't set up ongoing operations.
"AMR is certainly available to assist the county if Riggs decides to no longer serve the community without a contract. We already run calls in the county since Riggs uses AMR on a regular basis to cover their area," Sorrick said.
"However, given the short time span that would exist between no contract and an RFP being awarded, AMR has no plans at this time to set up operations in Merced County," he said.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.