Orange County officials are preparing to award contracts to Care Ambulance Service that would give the county's already dominant private ambulance provider a near lock on hospital transports via 911.
A notice sent out by the county Health Care Agency last week says the Orange-based Care is to be selected to provide ambulances for 17 of the 19 cities that rely on the Orange County Fire Authority for paramedic services, with Brea-based Emergency Ambulance Service getting the other two.
The decision could be the end game of a controversial selection process that dragged on for more than a year, and dash the plans of five other firms competing for slices of the vital and lucrative business. Most notably, it knocks out Doctor's Ambulance Service of Laguna Hills as the primary transporter of 911 patients in the southern region.
Losing bidders have until March 12 to submit a protest to the county agency, which some say they plan to do. At the end of the protest period the process will be referred to the county Board of Supervisors for review, according to a memo sent Friday by Health Care Agency officials.
If the county’s decision withstands any appeal or legal challenge, Care would be first in line for all hospital transports of Fire Authority patients from San Juan Capistrano north through Irvine into Los Alamitos and Tustin.
Care also would serve as the backup for Emergency Ambulance Service, which is slated to continue serving Placentia and Yorba Linda.
“We are pleased with the results of the [selection process] and look forward to providing quality service to all the zones awarded," Care spokesman Bob Barry said in a statement. "We take the trust the county is placing in us very seriously, and fully expect to exceed expectations.”
Michael Herren, Doctor’s senior vice president, said his firm is weighing its options but declined to discuss his plans. Doctor’s has transported paramedic patients in south county cities for decades.
Under the county’s new proposal, Doctor’s would serve as a backup provider in much of the county to be served by Care.
"We will be appealing," said Mike Summers, president and chief executive of AmeriCare Ambulance of Carson, which now serves Villa Park and canyon regions.
AmeriCare was selected as a backup to Care for a zone of five cities from Seal Beach through Stanton.
The county is working to rapidly complete ambulance selections after the state Emergency Medical Services Authority last year gave it a six-month extension to conduct the process. This occurred when the Fire Authority’s contracts with ambulances for the 19 cities expired on Sept. 1.
A year ago, the state forced the county Health Care Agency to take over the ambulance selection process from the Fire Authority -- an independent agency that historically had selected ambulances for its 23 cities.
State officials determined the county granted too much responsibility to the Fire Authority, thus violating recent court decisions.
This led to a scramble by the county to conduct a review it hadn’t expected. The first attempt at a selection decision broke down last October, prompting the current process.
The Health Care Agency made no one available Friday for an interview. The agency provided only this cryptic post to emergency medical service providers countywide.
The increasing dominance of Care is seen by observers as fitting closely with developing plans by the Fire Authority to, for the first time, work with private paramedics on the ambulances.
Under this model, paramedics responding to emergencies on Fire Authority engines would combine efforts with the private paramedics on ambulances.
Orange County is one of the few counties statewide that only utilize public paramedics for advanced life support for the most needy patients treated via 911.
Private paramedics -- who largely work for nationwide corporations -- are seen by most Orange County municipal fire chiefs as providing lesser quality service and therefore to be avoided.
But the county's Republican establishment has for years been pushing for private paramedics, largely for ideological reasons.
In September, the Fire Authority underwent a major shift in leadership after Keith Richter, its fire chief of five years, was forced to retire.
Current Chief Jeffrey Bowman then took over an agency roiled by months of political and labor turmoil.
By early December, Bowman acknowledged to Voice of OC that he was planning a pilot study whereby private paramedics would staff the private ambulances that transport patients to hospitals.
This would free up the public paramedics on Fire Authority equipment to be more readily available for the next emergency -- since under the current model the Fire Authority paramedics ride in the ambulances to the hospitals with the most critical patients.
The pilot program Bowman is proposing for the Fire Authority cities is similar to the model he oversaw when he was fire chief of the City of San Diego -- where he resigned in 2006 because that municipality wouldn’t provided needed resources for the threat of wildfires.
Last December, Bowman said he hoped to get approval for the program from the Fire Authority’s board and agreement with labor groups by this spring. But he didn’t want to initiate the program until a decision was made on the ambulance providers.
On Friday, a Fire Authority spokesman declined to comment, citing the sensitivities surrounding the issue.
Joe Kerr, a spokesman for the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, which represents most firefighters, said his group was pleased to see the “arduous process” of selecting ambulances being completed.
But he said the union remains “adamantly” against private paramedics, which they see as providing lesser quality of care.
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