Ore. county rejects only bid for ambulance service
Commissioners reversed course after two years of work toward a new contract, four months before the current contract runs out
By Molly Harbarger
CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — After two years of work toward a new contract for ambulance services, the Clackamas County commissioners abruptly reversed course Tuesday, rejecting the lone bid to provide emergency services just four months before the current contract runs out.
The commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the proposal offered by the county’s current provider, American Medical Response.
Nearly every agency that works with emergency services has signed off on AMR’s most recent proposal. Tom O'Connor, chairman of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Council, which represents all fire departments in the county, said Tuesday he was "mystified" by the commissioners' vote.
"I think it's poor governance and it's going to open up the county to litigation," said O'Connor, who is also Canby Fire District operations chief.
AMR General Manager Randy Lauer said the company has retained legal counsel and is considering a lawsuit against the county. The board must have significant reasons to reject a proposal when it is the only one being considered.
Lauer said his company is willing to extend service until the contract is resolved. “We work for the citizens of Clackamas County and it wouldn’t be fair to them to lower the service if their leaders can’t figure anything out,” Lauer said.
The board will meet in the next few weeks to decide how to proceed. Already, Smith said she wants to restart the process from the beginning.
AMR is in the last months of a one-year extension.
Lauer estimated that his company spent $500,000 on the rejected proposal and he was unsure whether the company would submit a bid if the process starts all over again.
He noted that competitors would now be able to examine AMR’s bid, giving them an advantage. “If you know you can’t win it because the cards are stacked against you, why waste the money?” Lauer said.
The rejection comes after about two years of work. A previous board decided not to continue the “evergreen” contract with AMR, which automatically renewed the contract without a bidding process.
Before soliciting bids, county staff and two boards of commissioners waded through minute details to craft the parameters for proposals. Then, when AMR was the only company to submit a bid on time, staff and commissioners again held at least seven meetings pouring over the contract and renegotiating with the company.
In mid-December, the county's Emergency Medical Services Council unanimously advised the commissioners to sign the contract.
Chairman O'Connor said the county conducted a long, thorough, transparent process to fashion a request for proposals, then evaluated AMR's bid. He noted that AMR agreed to a 19 percent reduction in costs and has successfully negotiated subcontracts with fire districts and cities within the county.
He said the commissioners should explain why they rejected the contract. "If you go out for bids again, what are you looking for?" O'Connor asked. "What would you want that you don't already have in your hands?"
However, three commissioners – John Ludlow, Tootie Smith and Jim Bernard -- were still unsatisfied with the proposal, and wanted more competition.
MetroWest, a competitor, filed paperwork minutes after the deadline, disqualifying the company.
On Tuesday, Commissioner Paul Savas said that the competition already happened in the bidding process, and AMR won out by getting the contract in on time. He also supported approving the AMR proposal, because he said it meets the county’s standards.
The board weighted certain portions of the proposal, with a significant emphasis on reducing the cost of service. Savas said the $233 per ambulance ride savings in the proposed contract would greatly benefit the uninsured residents of Clackamas County.
However, Ludlow, Smith and Bernard maintained they were uncomfortable with having only one bidder.
Ludlow said his other sticking point was that asking for mountain rescue and river rescue services could put the county in danger of Medicare and Medicaid fraud because some residents wouldn’t take advantage of the service. He suggested the commissioners could be committing a felony, but County Counsel Stephen Madkour said that risk was minimal. He said the risk could be reduced to zero by tweaking the contract.
Commissioner Martha Schrader strongly supported approving the contract, adding that opponents have not articulated a good reason to reject the proposal. “I think it was a good bid, and I think no good can come of this,” Schrader said.
After she warned to the possibility of litigation, Ludlow asked if not having a “good reason” opened the county up to a lawsuit.
Madkour said he preferred to elaborate in a closed-door session but, “The answer, in a nutshell, is yes.”
Reporter Rick Bella of The Oregonian contributed.