A highly contentious process to choose the private ambulance firms that will respond to 9-1-1 calls in more than half of Orange County’s cities came to a close on Tuesday, with county supervisors sticking with a previous recommendation to award the vast majority of business to a single firm.
Orange-based Care Ambulance Service was chosen as the primary provider for four zones that cover 17 cities, while Emergency Ambulance Service of Brea received one zone with two cities. The firms are slated to operate the zones for five years, starting in June.
The decision came on a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett opposing.
The move greatly expands Care’s dominance of ambulance service in Orange County. The firm already operates in several cities in North and Central County.
In approving the contracts, the majority of supervisors rejected repeated pleas from South County cities to effectively give their existing ambulance firm, Doctor’s Ambulance Service, another chance to continue as the primary provider.
Various city representatives, as well as Bartlett, argued for creating a new zone out of two existing zones and re-bidding the contracts in a way that would involve more city input.
“When any of us go out to hire a service, we check references. And our cities have not been asked,” said Aliso Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Mike Munzing, who was among several South County city officials to urge a re-bid on Tuesday.
He added that if all the South County zones are awarded to Care, it will drastically reduce competition – and thus the quality of service – when the contracts are up for a re-bid in five years.
Bartlett reiterated many of the cities’ concerns, saying that several of current officials weren’t in office when the bidding process was developed last year.
“I’m deeply concerned that the current elected officials, as well as myself, did not have input” on the bidding process, panel selection and scoring criteria, Bartlett said.
But her efforts to re-start the process met significant pushback from her colleagues, with Supervisor Todd Spitzer arguing that Bartlett’s logic would make it impossible to award contracts after a bidding process.
“If that were true, we could never govern, because we’d always have to delay decisions until we got a new batch of elected officials,” said Spitzer.
Also weighing on the supervisors’ decision was a deadline from state authorities for the county to choose its new ambulance vendors by June 1 or be forced to allow multiple firms to operate within the same area.
The state Emergency Medical Services Authority had already granted two extensions, and on Monday denied Bartlett’s request for a third.
Still, cities argued that going past the deadline in the two zones wouldn’t affect response times or public safety.
“No harm will occur during this time frame,” Laguna Hills Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Kogerman told supervisors.
The winning bidder, meanwhile, painted a much more dire picture.
“The public risk of going on a rotation system, I believe is extreme,” said Troy Hagan, CEO of Care Ambulance.
“You’re going to have a different ambulance company by county policy every 30 days” and companies wouldn’t be able to make investments in those areas, he said.
In the end, Bartlett’s motion to re-bid the two South County zones failed to get a second from any of her colleagues.
The ambulance firms vying for Orange County’s business have contributed thousands of dollars to county supervisors’ political campaigns, with Care Ambulance giving the most, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign finance records.
Care Ambulance has contributed $7,150 between all five supervisors, while Doctor’s gave just $2,100, the review found.
Additionally, contributions by Care, its lobbying firm and their other clients total nearly $48,000, while in Doctor’s case it comes out to about $12,500.
About 800,000 people live in the 19 cities that would be covered under the ambulance areas up for approval.
Those cities are Irvine, Tustin, Villa Park, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Woods, Dana Point, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Juan Capistrano, Cypress, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach, Stanton, Placentia and Yorba Linda.
The contracts would also cover many unincorporated areas, like North Tustin and canyon communities.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the city where Barbara Kogerman serves as mayor pro tem. The correct city is Laguna Hills.