Stakes rise for Merced County’s ambulance contract

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 21, 2014 

MS RIGGS

Merced County’s one-year contract extension with Riggs Ambulance Service will expire Aug. 31.

MERCED SUN-STAR

— Two major ambulance companies might soon compete with Riggs Ambulance Service for Merced County’s emergency ambulance contract, after attending a bidder’s conference Friday.

Falck Ambulance and American Medical Response officials were at the table, along with representatives from Riggs, for a mandatory conference for potential bidders. Though not all attendees are required to bid for the contract, companies interested in competing must attend the conference.

The meeting allowed bidders to ask questions about the Request for Proposal, released on the county’s website last month, and the county’s expectations for the ambulance provider.

The bidders were also given the opportunity to submit written questions prior to the conference Friday.

Brian Hubbell, general manager with Falck Ambulance in Northern California, said the company is always looking for ways to grow and is excited about the possibility of coming to Merced County.

“We felt there was an opportunity for us to provide some quality service to the county of Merced and we wanted to see if this would be an option for us,” Hubbell said in a telephone interview Friday. “We’re definitely interested, although we haven’t made a final decision on whether we will submit a bid.”

Falck Ambulance employs about 4,500 people in the United States and has a presence in 43 countries. Its Northern California operations are based in Petaluma and provide service to parts of Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties.

During Friday’s conference Hubbell asked county officials about the dispatch center’s location. Officials said they would like the dispatch center to remain inside the county. Hubbell said most of his other questions were answered through the written process. “It seems like it’s a good bid and ultimately that’s why we’re interested,” he said. “Merced is growing for multiple businesses, and we definitely want to be part of the community and grow with the community.”

AMR officials said the company is still interested in providing service to Merced County, despite a controversial decision by the Board of Supervisors last year to cancel an award to AMR after it won the bidding process. The decision to restart the bidding came after multiple appeals from longtime provider Riggs and claims that the process was flawed.

“We quickly put it behind us. It has not changed our opinion about whether or not we want to do business in Merced County,” said Cindy Woolston, general manager for AMR in Stanislaus and Tulare counties. “What happened last year, those types of things happen in other areas with RFPs, and you have to put these things behind you.

“If we submit a bid, I feel confident that it will be judged fairly,” Woolston added, noting that AMR has not made a final decision. “We continue to look at the cost of the RFP, and what it will take to submit a winning proposal.”

Woolston and others asked about the identities of those who will judge the companies’ proposals. Officials said the bidders will not know the names of the evaluators or the companies they work for. “It’s a small world and you might know them,” said Richard Keller, founding partner of Fitch & Associates, the Missouri-based consulting firm hired to write the Request for Proposal.

When discussing the process in July, Keller said three to five evaluators will be selected, most from outside the state, to score the proposals. The identities of the evaluators will remain anonymous, but they’ll have expertise in the emergency medical services industry.

Keller said the evaluators are screened for potential conflicts of interest with bidders. On the last day of scoring, bidders will give a presentation and answer questions, and evaluators will be allowed to change their ratings based on the session.

Woolston asked about critical care transport, taking a patient from one hospital to another for advanced treatment with a skilled nurse aboard. In the new RFP, the county requires an ambulance company provide this service.

Riggs officials last year said the company doesn’t offer critical care transport because there wasn’t enough demand for it, but General Manager Steve Melander said the company has developed a plan for adding the service.

“Obviously, I can’t tell you exactly what the plan is, but it will meet and exceed the minimum qualifications of the request,” Melander said. “Throughout this entire process we have not waited to be awarded a contract. We’ve continued to invest in the system and grow and add more personnel hours.”

Melander said Riggs has added 10 new ambulances and hired more employees over the past year, in addition to opening a deployment center in Los Banos.

Melander said the company wasn’t surprised to see representatives from competing ambulance companies at the conference Friday, but it’s prepared to work hard to keep the county’s contract.

“We are 100 percent absolutely bidding this contract and we’re going to do everything in our power to submit the best proposal for the patients and for the community,” he said.

Merced County’s one-year contract extension with Riggs Ambulance Service will expire Aug. 31.

Ambulance companies have until April 15 to submit proposals for the five-year contract. The contract allows an extension for an additional five years.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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