July 03. 2013 12:11AM

Manchester says it'll stay with AMR for ambulance service

MANCHESTER – American Medical Response is the winner.

After a lengthy and tense debate, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Tuesday voted 10-3 to award AMR, the city's current emergency ambulance provider, another 2-1/2 year contract. The contract was fiercely contested by AMR's competitor, American Ambulance of New England, and in the weeks leading up to vote, company officials traded allegations of impropriety and deception.

The decision capped a dramatic rehabilitation of AMR's reputation. The company faced a deluge of complaints in 2011 and 2012, the first two years of its contract, over large bills and aggressive collection practices.

During much of the debate, the majority of aldermen appeared to be inclined to send the contract back to committee.

But the willingness of AMR to agree to last-minute amendments and the emphatic support of Fire Chief James Burkush appeared to sway several aldermen. AMR President Ted Van Horne told the aldermen that he was wiling to make the contract 2-1/2 years rather than 5-1/2 years, as called for in the request for proposals and extending to 180 days the length of time it would wait before sending a bill to collections.

Burkush was asked if he would stake his reputation on his recommendation of AMR.

"Absolutely," he said. "As fire chief, I have to look at the resources in front of me. The resources here are working very well... The new management has been very responsive."

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy has been highly critical of the process by which AMR emerged as the Burkush's pick. He was a member of the ad-hoc committee that reviewed the proposals, and he stressed that a majority of the department heads and members of the committee backed American, according to meeting minutes.

Roy also pointed to the lack of disclosure in AMR's proposal of legal action against the company, in particular a 2011 corporate integrity agreement it signed with the U.S. Inspector General stemming from an investigation into Medicaid overbilling in AMR's New York office. Roy said the lack of disclosure should have disqualified AMR from the contract, according to the terms of the RFP.

"This is bad business. And if we let it stand, it's bad government," Roy said. "This reeks of favoritism. The department head alone made the choice."

Last week, an attorney for American suggested that choosing AMR for the ambulance contract may violate public bidding laws.

At one point in the debate, City Solicitor Tom Clark was asked if there were any legal concerns about moving forward with the process.

After a long pause, he proposed discussing the matter in non-public session. Following the closed-door meeting, a motion was made to back the administration's committee recommendation of AMR.

Both AMR and American flew in top executives to make the case for the contract.

Brendan McNiff, American's chief operating officer, stressed that he left AMR late last year in part because of concerns about how the company was being run.He said he was confident that he could set up a superior service with American. "I set up the system here, and I'm confident I could it again," McNiff said.

In response to the questions from the aldermen about AMR's billing issues, General Manager Chris Stawacz said, "We've had no problem taking care of people in street. We dropped the ball when we got to the hospital. In the last six months, we've had almost no complaints."

Mayor Ted Gatsas has also expressed support for AMR in recent months, citing the changes its made, including setting up a local billing office and establishing a provider agreement with Anthem, the city's largest insurer.

Voting to back the recommendation for AMR were Aldermen Joyce Craig, Ron Ludwig, Garth Corriveau, Barbara Shaw, Phil Greazzo, Normand Gamache, Dan O'Neil, Joe Kelly Levasseur, Patrick Arnold and William Shea.

Voting against the motion were Aldermen Roy, Pat Long and Ed Osborne.