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Calif. ambulance co. accused of 'improper transport' in patient's death

The service denied a claim filed by a woman who says they failed to correctly diagnose and treat her husband's medical condition and he died because of it

By Ramona Giwargis
Merced Sun-Star

MERCED, Calif. — A San Bernardino County woman’s claim that her husband died because of an “improper transport” by Riggs Ambulance Service was denied by Merced County earlier this month.

Ana Centeno, 65, of Rialto, claims the ambulance company “failed to properly transport” her husband, Oscar Armando Centeno, on July 2, 2013. The 58-year-old man died the next day, according to the claim.

Centeno also claims Riggs failed to correctly diagnose her husband’s medical condition and did not provide the proper treatment, which resulted in his death.

The county denied the claim Feb. 4, according to county documents. Centeno has six months to file a lawsuit if she chooses to do so.

The December 2013 claim was filed against Merced County’s Public Health Department and Riggs for $250,000 in damages. The claim states that the damages are for “pain and suffering,” in addition to lost wages, earnings and other issues.

When the family was reached for comment Thursday afternoon, the man’s daughter said she could not elaborate on the case until consulting with her family.

“I have to speak to my mom and our attorney,” said Claudia Centeno. The family did not return calls seeking comment.

Oscar Centeno, an El Salvador native, was the president of a trucking company, according to public records.

Merced County Chief Civil Litigator Roger Matzkind said the claim was denied because the county has no liability for the allegations made by Centeno. “The county doesn’t transport people by ambulance or diagnose them,” Matzkind said. “There’s nothing there that indicates any liability on the county’s part.

“It’s just not what we do; it’s what Riggs does,” he added. “As a matter of law, there’s no liability for the county.”

Matzkind acknowledged that the county provides “general oversight” of Riggs through its emergency medical services agency, which monitors the ambulance provider’s response times, handles patient care complaints and ensures contract compliance.

The Merced County EMS Agency is administered through the county Public Health Department. Director Kathleen Grassi declined comment about the claims Thursday.

Riggs’ General Manager Steve Melander said he first learned of the claim Thursday when contacted by the Merced Sun-Star. He declined comment until he could gather more information about the case.

Riggs contract set to expire

Merced County’s one-year contract extension with Riggs Ambulance Service will expire Aug. 31. Grassi said the county is getting closer to releasing a Request for Proposal to start the bidding process for a permanent ambulance contract.

The Request for Proposal document was sent to the state EMS Authority for approval in November, Grassi said, and the county completed two rounds of revisions requested by the state agency.

“I think we’re very close, but I haven’t gotten the final approval from the state yet,” Grassi said. “The last round of changes were minor wording changes, and now they’ve asked for a final proposal and that’s gone to them.”

In 2012, county staff recommended awarding the ambulance contract to competitor American Medical Response, but Riggs appealed the decision and claimed the bidding process was flawed. In January 2013, the Board of Supervisors rejected the recommendation to award the contract to AMR and voted to restart the bidding process.

As county officials prepare to restart the bidding, a new face has joined the county’s EMS management team.

Jim Clark, emergency medical services manager, joined Merced County in November. The Los Banos resident has 35 years of paramedic and management experience, including time at the Salinas Fire Department and San Benito County.

Clark replaces Linda Diaz, who resigned two weeks after county supervisors rejected the award to AMR. Diaz’s resignation letter on Feb. 13, 2013, said the EMS manager job once was fulfilling, but “recent events” made her realize it was no longer what she hoped for or envisioned.

Clark, who acknowledged watching the contract dispute unfold between Riggs and AMR, said he’s looking forward to beginning a new chapter. “All of that happened before my time; I’m coming into all this with a clean slate,” Clark said. “It’s a whole new process done in a whole new way.”

Clark said his goals include helping the county’s ambulance system evolve with new technology.

“EMS is science-based and it changes with time and experience,” Clark said. “I’d like to get involved with that, and bring some of those techniques and practices into the county.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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