San Diego signs contract with new ambulance provider

San Diego's switch to Falck led to multiple protest filings from American Medical Response, which has been the city's ambulance provider for the last 23 years


David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — San Diego has taken another key step toward replacing the city's longtime ambulance provider with a Danish company that operates ambulances in Los Angeles County, Orange County and the Bay Area.

City officials have negotiated and signed a formal contract with Falck USA, which the city selected last summer to take over its ambulance service from longtime provider American Medical Response.

The city's efforts to find a new ambulance provider come after years of complaints about service levels and response times, particularly in more ethnically diverse areas south of state Route 94.

The new contract with Falck, which includes plans to adjust staffing and ambulance deployments across the city, must be approved by a new City Council sometime next year.

That approval could be delayed by protests from American Medical Response regarding how the contract was awarded or based on elements of Falck's staffing plan, which is expected to be released later this month.

AMR filed a protest in August challenging the city's selection of Falck. The protest claimed there was a conflict of interest on the city's selection committee because the son of one committee member was fired by AMR several years ago.

The signing of the contract, which happened Friday, indicates that protest was unsuccessful. But AMR is expected to file subsequent protests before the City Council votes on the contract, and those protests could prove successful.

Falck officials said Tuesday that they are confident they will take over for AMR and become the city's first new ambulance provider in 23 years.

"The city of San Diego has gone more than 20 years without bidding out its emergency ambulance services contract in a competitive process," said Troy Hagen, chief commercial officer for Falck USA. "Moving forward with this contract is the right decision for ensuring that San Diegans have the best emergency medical care at a fair price."

Falck's overall score in the "request for proposals" competition was 96.90, compared to 95.40 for AMR.

A city selection panel this summer graded the staffing plan proposed by Falck higher than the staffing plan proposed by AMR by a score of 140 to 127.75.

Falck outscored AMR on staffing plans, responsiveness to the city's request and interviews. AMR outscored Falck on capability and expertise.

Details of Falck's staffing and ambulance deployment plan couldn't previously be revealed because negotiations with the city were ongoing. Now that the contract is signed, the city is expected to unveil Falck's complete plan in coming days.

Hagen said in September that Falck's proposal prioritized response times and staffing levels of paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

San Diego initially announced it had selected Falck over AMR in December 2019, but AMR filed a protest that prompted the city to re-start the process.

In April, the city gave AMR a two-year extension. But that deal included specific provisions to smooth a possible transition to Falck.

Instead of signing a typical extension, city officials included special language in the deal that allows it to be terminated if the city chooses a new provider. The contract also includes a "lame duck" provision that requires AMR to continue providing service for six months after a new provider is chosen.

AMR has criticized Falck for "overpromising and underdelivering."

While AMR has met all city-mandated response time goals since 2017, weak response times have been a hot topic in recent years, especially in the city's southern neighborhoods.

Three years ago, AMR and city officials softened a key standard for emergency response designed to ensure equitable ambulance service across neighborhoods.

A new ambulance contract could be an opportunity to revive that standard, which divided the city into eight service zones and demanded the ambulance provider meet response time goals in each zone.

The standard was softened to four zones in 2017, despite complaints from leaders in neighborhoods south of state Route 94. Because the zones are now twice as big, there is greater potential for a provider to give subpar service to some neighborhoods and still meet the response-time goals by posting stellar times elsewhere in that zone, critics said.

In addition to California, Falck provides ambulance services in eight other U.S. states.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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