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City Considers Its Paramedic Service Options : Ambulances: The current provider has had the longest private contract in the United States. The firm absorbs losses for the sake of 'prestige.' Could firefighters do it cheaper?

May 10, 1990|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to the rising cost of emergency calls, Glendale officials this week began re-evaluating the city's paramedic program to see if private firms or Glendale firefighters can do the work more economically.

Glendale's current five-year contract is with Professional Ambulance, a private firm which has handled the city's paramedic and ambulance service for the past 15 years. And although that contract does not expire until February, the city must seek bids on another contract now because a new paramedic firm may need six months to prepare, Fire Chief John Montenero said.

While seeking bids from outside firms, Montenero will also estimate what it would cost for the Glendale Fire Department to provide paramedic services, as many neighboring cities do.

"I can manage it either way," the fire chief said in an interview. "It's really going to be a value judgment."

A study conducted before the present contract was awarded in 1986 indicated it would cost Glendale up to $470,000 annually to use city-employed paramedics. Montenero said that figure would likely be higher today.

The fire chief asked the Glendale City Council on Tuesday to approve a bid request for the new paramedic and ambulance contract, with responses due by June 11. But council members asked for changes in the document, and it will be considered again at next Tuesday's meeting.

As proposed by the fire chief, the new contract would be for four years, with two optional renewals by the city for two years each.

The last two times the paramedic contract was put out to bid, Glendale-based Professional Ambulance was the only company to bid. At this week's meeting, Councilman Richard Jutras asked the fire chief if he believes more bids will be submitted for the new contract.

"I'm not sure of that," Montenero replied. "I couldn't get a feel for the market."

Rand Brooks, owner of Professional Ambulance, said in an interview that his service to Glendale has been the longest private paramedic contract in the United States. But he said he has not decided whether to bid on a new contract with Glendale.

"We've been losing on paramedics since the beginning, but they were a prestige thing," he said.

In 1988, Brooks said, his company billed Glendale residents just over $1.2 million for paramedic calls, but collected only about $800,000. Paramedic calls increased to about 8,000 last year--double the number received when Professional Ambulance began serving the city in 1975.

Brooks said his company's losses on paramedic services are offset by its revenue from transporting patients between homes and hospitals.

The 1986 contract called for Professional Ambulance to provide Glendale with three paramedic-staffed ambulances around the clock, with additional provisions for backup service. Under that contract, Professional Ambulance was to bill patients for paramedic calls but to receive no city funds.

Because of increasing service calls, however, the city agreed last October to change the contract to require a fourth paramedic ambulance, paying Professional Ambulance $423,000 annually for the unit.

The company charges patients $156 for a routine paramedic call or $260 if life-support services are rendered. Additional charges are imposed for mileage to the hospital, oxygen and nighttime service. Medicare and Medi-Cal reimburse at lower rates, Brooks said.

He said he does not believe the city can operate its own paramedic service as economically as his private firm does.

Fire Chief Montenero said it is unlikely a new paramedic contract can be adopted without a city subsidy. The new bid proposal asks a paramedic company to tell the amount it will need from Glendale.

The fire chief said new provisions in the contract would require that paramedics be dispatched directly by the Verdugo Communications System, operated by the Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena fire departments. Currently, calls are transferred to Professional Ambulance, which dispatches its personnel.

Montenero said this would eliminate one step and result in a quicker response.

The proposal also encourages the use of more experienced paramedics and requires that private paramedics join Glendale police and firefighters in regular training programs.

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