West Side Community Ambulance will relinquish control of the taxpayer-supported ambulance service to the same Nevada-based nonprofit that’s buying out Riggs Ambulance Service.
Ambulance officials said financial and personnel problems led to the decision to have Sierra Medical Services Alliance (SEMSA) take over management and day-to-day operations of West Side. The West Side Community Healthcare District board voted 4-1 to approve a five-year contract with SEMSA earlier this month.
The district will pay SEMSA $113,000 a year, with 5 percent cost-of-living increases starting July 1.
Chuck Coelho, a board member and former manager of West Side ambulance, voted against the contract. The board pondered the move for more than two months, but board President Rick Daniel told the Merced Sun-Star having SEMSA take over was the only way West Side could survive.
“The other alternative was we were going to end up folding because we couldn’t keep going financially,” Daniel said Thursday. “We don’t get reimbursed for the full amount of what our costs are. We get back, on the average, 23 cents on every dollar that we bill.”
Financial hardship coupled with problems related to its labor agreement, Daniel said, led to West Side hiring SEMSA’s Mike Williams as a “management consultant” to help the district. Now, SEMSA will permanently oversee daily operations, billing services, human resources and quality improvement services, beginning Jan. 1.
Riggs General Manager Steve Melander, now named the vice president of SEMSA’s Central California Region, will manage West Side. Melander replaces Eric Watts, the chief of operations for West Side Community Ambulance, who resigned Oct. 4.
Watts could not be reached for comment Thursday. In previous Sun-Star interviews, Watts shared concerns about West Side’s relationship with Riggs because it used one of West Side’s only two ambulances to cover calls in Los Banos.
The issue was later resolved when Riggs opened its own deployment center in Los Banos and dedicated two full-time ambulances to cover the city.
Melander told the Sun-Star Thursday that SEMSA taking over West Side’s operations will not result in the community ambulance turning into a subdivision of Riggs – or losing its identity.
“There is no reason for us to go in and put our name on the side of more ambulances,” Melander said. “We think it’s important that West Side ambulance maintains its community identity and who they are. We want to make sure they are sustainable and successful in this EMS environment.”
Melander said SEMSA will keep West Side’s team of EMTs and paramedics, saying it’s critical to have people who know the back roads of the rural community district.
He envisioned keeping the two 24-hour ambulances in the West Side district, as long as insurance “reimbursement does not change and their tax subsidy does not decline.”
Prior to SEMSA’s pending takeover, a Pleasant Hill-based firm handled West Side’s billing and collection services for eight years. The firm’s CEO told the Sun-Star replacing his company with SEMSA was “orchestrated” by SEMSA officials who were hired to act as objective management consultants.
Tim Toomay, president of Toomay Technologies, said the SEMSA consultant sat on the board’s closed-session meetings and then gave them advice on what to do.
“As a consultant, SEMSA advised the West Side board to terminate our contract, but they didn’t have any other contract to replace it,” Toomay said. “I think it was inappropriate because you don’t offer yourself as a consultant to give objective advice on financial matters where you want your company to be used.”
Melander maintained West Side will benefit from the resources that SEMSA brings to the table.
“We’re bringing all the SEMSA-Riggs staff to help West Side,” he said. “Whether you have a two-ambulance or 200-ambulance company, you still fall under the same government requirements. One person trying to do that by themselves will not be able to keep up with all the regulatory changes.
“We’re large enough to where we do have all those services we can provide to small, rural providers,” he said.