Colorado Editorials

The Colorado Springs Gazette: Colorado Springs leaders make life-saving decision

Author: The Colorado Springs Gazette Editorial Board - July 16, 2018 - Updated: July 16, 2018

Colorado Springs government wisely ended its negotiations Thursday with Priority Ambulance service, which wants to replace American Medical Response.

The Gazette’s editorial board published an editorial April 1 expressing concerns about Priority.

“The city should slow this process, extend AMR’s contract one year to the end of 2019 and consider its long-term options,” the editorial suggests.

Our July 8 editorial, titled “Don’t gamble lives on ambulance service,” restated those concerns.

A review of AMR’s performance in the Springs turns up good news. The service outperforms expectations of the contract, which demands a response time of 8 minutes in 92 percent of emergency calls. AMR has exceeded that obligation every month throughout the duration of its contract.

Meanwhile, a review of Priority’s history reveals alarming performance concerns. The company’s CEO and chief growth officer held high positions in three other ambulance companies that went bankrupt. Two closed without warning, leaving dozens of cities without service. A fourth company associated with Priority’s leadership recently settled a federal lawsuit alleging kickbacks to a local government.

Learning all of this, city officials did just the right thing. They put lives ahead of potential financial savings.

Within the next 18 months, city leaders will solicit another round of contract proposals from competing companies desiring the contract for our ambulance service. This presents opportunity to ensure life-saving service years to come.

Though AMR provides good, on-time service, no one claims it is perfect. Mayor John Suthers confirms AMR exceeds contractual obligations. He also points out that an AMR ambulance shows up within eight minutes only 70 percent of the time. The contract allows the company to show up within 12 minutes if the Fire Department shows up within eight.

“They totaled 92 percent, with the Fire Department’s help,” Suthers explained, as quoted in a Gazette news article by Conrad Swanson.

True, but city government created this arrangement. Then-Mayor Steve Bach’s administration signed a contract with AMR in 2013, in which the company pays the city more than $1 million a year to provide service. AMR profits from fees charged to patients or their insurers.

City government, by law, must provide something to AMR in return for the company’s money. If it did not, the fee would meet legal definitions of a kickback to the city.

For the $1 million-plus, the city provides AMR with fire department backup. AMR buys the contractual flexibility of a 12-minute response. That’s the agreement. If the contract did not demand so much of AMR’s money, the company could afford more EMTs, ambulances, and a speedier response.

The fees subsidize firetrucks and firefighters to respond to most ambulance calls, including minor dog bites and the like. That cannot be an efficient use of resources.

Maybe the next contract should end the practice of diverting money from the vendor to the city. In return for dropping its fee, the city could demand a quicker minimal response time. Negotiators should also consider safe criteria for more ambulance-only responses to calls that don’t require Fire Department equipment and personnel.

It is easy for observers to advocate life above all considerations of cost. It is not so easy for those who balance the books and sign contracts. In real life, we cannot guarantee an instant response to every potential crisis.

But we can, and should, maintain public health and safety the highest cause of city government. That’s why this next contract matters so much. It explains why city leaders need more time to get this right.

The Colorado Springs Gazette Editorial Board