An already controversial and drawn-out process to choose which private firms will provide ambulance services in more than half of Orange County's cities could face even more delays after county supervisors on Tuesday said they plan to seek another extension of a key deadline.
The move came after protests by two ambulance companies over the bidding process, and criticism by officials from several South County cities over the county’s contract evaluation, which recommended a single firm – Care Ambulance – for four of the five ambulance zones.
Supervisors were supposed to vote Tuesday during their regular meeting on whether to award contracts to Care for the four zones, which cover 17 cities, and Emergency Ambulance Service for a zone that covers two cities.
But after supervisors echoed many of the city officials’ concerns – including whether a lion's share of the business should go to Care at the exclusion of Doctor's Ambulance, which has strong local ties in South County – they decided to postpone their decision and schedule a special meeting on the issue for April 28.
Over a year ago, the state forced the county Health Care Agency to take over the process from the Orange County 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.
About 800,000 people live in the 19 cities that would be covered under the contracts currently up for bid.
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.
The county's first bidding process fell apart in late October amid questions of favoritism and a lack of transparency.
The state then gave county officials a June 1 deadline to award the contracts. If that deadline is missed, county officials say they would lose their “exclusivity” rights and be required to allow multiple firms to operate in individual zones, as long as the firms meet certain criteria.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett – who represents South County – volunteered to lead an effort to ask the state Emergency Medical Services Authority to allow an extension of their June 1 deadline to award contracts. Supervisor Michelle Steel agreed to help Bartlett with that effort.
Additionally, state Sen. Pat Bates (R-Mission Viejo) is very interested in speaking with Sacramento officials about allowing a cap on the number of zones that a single ambulance company can operate, according to supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer.
“This has been so overdue for a legislative remedy,” said Spitzer, referring to the state’s control of the ambulance selection process.
Lawmakers should tell the state emergency services agency to “pound sand” and leave the selection process to local officials, he added.
He was also skeptical that the extension request would be approved, given that the state EMSA believes local officials are meddling too much in ambulance selection.
But Supervisor Shawn Nelson said there’s an argument to be made that a monopolization of service by Care would create a risk to public safety if, for example, the firm were to go out of business.
If the state were to allow the cap on how many zones any company can have, he added, the bidding process wouldn’t have to be re-done, given that the county could simply choose the second-highest-ranked provider.
A number of city officials showed up to the Tuesday's meeting to urge supervisors to hold off on making a decision.
“The perception of a monopoly being created by one ambulance company is very troubling,” said Laguna Niguel City Manager Rod Foster, who was joined at the meeting by several other council members from his city.
Also Viejo residents have been very happy with Doctor’s Ambulance, said the city’s mayor pro tem, Mike Munzing.
“They have been a tremendous partner” in the city, Munzing said, adding that Doctor's has sponsored community events.
Besides Foster and Munzing, city officials who raised concerns included Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Greg Raths, Laguna Woods Mayor Cynthia Conners, as well as former Mission Viejo Mayor Rhonda Reardon.
Others spoke of a lack of input from local stakeholders.
“We were disappointed when we were not consulted for input as to how emergency services were solicited to serve our city,” said Bill Leber, a board member of the Laguna Niguel Chamber of Commerce. “The county decided to dismiss any participation of the cities in the process.”
Meanwhile, Care Ambulance’s CEO, Troy Hagen, said he would ensure that the cities’ needs are met.
“We are here to take care of the patients, we are here to take care of the cities” and everyone we come in contact with, Hagen said.
The April 28 special meeting on the ambulance issue is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. at the county Hall of Administration.