Colorado Editorials

The Colorado Springs Gazette: Colorado Springs should ensure safe, stable ambulance service

Author: The Colorado Springs Gazette Editorial Board - April 2, 2018 - Updated: April 2, 2018

The city government of Colorado Springs has a crummy model for emergency medical services, and it might make matters even worse by replacing American Medical Response with Priority Ambulance.

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

AMR has provided ambulance service in Colorado Springs since 1979. In 2013, the city government, in financial straits, chose to squeeze AMR for revenue. It created a model in which the ambulance service pays Colorado Springs a $1.17 million “reimbursement” for the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s arrival on the scene of accidents.

With AMR’s contract ending this year, the city in 2017 published a request for proposals that asked ambulance providers for an even larger check, $1.4 million annually, while offering them less in return. AMR submitted a bid with exceptions, because, as it explained, it would lose money under the terms of the request for proposal. Accordingly, the city declared another company, Priority, the highest-scoring candidate in its request for proposal process.

Priority might promise the city more money than AMR, but promises are cheap. As reported in a Gazette news article by Conrad Swanson, Priority’s chief executive officer and chief growth officer have held leadership positions in three ambulance companies that made big promises but went bankrupt, all in the past five years. Two of those companies shut without warning and left dozens of municipalities without ambulance service. The third restructured and survived because Santa Clara County propped it up with many millions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies.

Besides the bankruptcies, Priority is entangled in an ethics inquiry in Tennessee, where the Knox County Ethics Committee is investigating claims two county commissioners accepted $500 gift cards given to them as participants on a Priority golf team days before voting on the county’s ambulance contract.

Even if the selection committee had chosen a more reputable company as Colorado Springs’ next ambulance provider, this would be the perfect time for Mayor John Suthers to examine the model and improve it. We have a couple of suggestions.

First, we are uncomfortable with the city treating its ambulance provider as a source of significant revenue. Emergency services shouldn’t be a cash cow, and when treated as such the costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher fees and/or slower service. When it comes to 911 calls, the city’s only objective should be rapid response. Lives depend on it, as does the reputation of Colorado Springs.

AMR has performed well under its current contract, exceeding its on-time response standards for emergency calls every month. It could perform even better, because it would have more resources to deploy, if the city weren’t extracting $1.17 million each year. This is essentially a hidden tax on consumers who use emergency services — you know, the people who have likely just been involved with a terribly traumatic event.

Second, if you have ever called 911 for a dog bite or a broken wrist, you probably remember a Colorado Springs Fire Department truck and an AMR ambulance arrived on scene. In Colorado Springs and some other cities, the fire department and the ambulance provider respond to every emergency call, even though the ambulance provider could handle most, or at least many, calls by itself.

If CSFD didn’t respond to nonlife-threatening calls, the city wouldn’t need the $1.17 million it receives from AMR, and AMR could convert those funds into more ambulances on the street, which in turn would make its response times even faster.

Additional ideas are also worth exploring, and with AMR’s contract coming to an end, now is the time to explore them.

An improved EMS model would be a substantial legacy for this city administration. Our emergency service should be among the most reliable companies in town. Given the issues with our newly proposed contract structure, unanswered questions about ethics complaints of the proposed contract structure, unanswered questions about ethics complaints against the proposed new contractor and its leaders’ track record of bankrupting ambulance companies, city administration should consider taking a pause to figure this out.

The Colorado Springs Gazette Editorial Board