MANCHESTER — A key aldermanic committee has backed renewing the contract for American Medical Response, the emergency ambulance company that, until several months ago, was beset by complaints over large bills and aggressive collection practices.
The Committee on Administration on Monday voted to go along with the recommendation of Fire Chief James Burkush, who argued that AMR had made great strides in addressing the prior issues.
“My primary concern is the safety of our citizens and performance,” Burkush told the committee. “With confidence, I recommend they get the next contract.”
Specifically, Burkush noted that AMR has set up a local billing office and had reached a provider agreement with the city’s largest insurer, Anthem, following pressure from Mayor Ted Gatsas.
AMR was chosen over American Ambulance Services of New England, the other company vying for the five-year contract. American, a division of the Scandinavian company Falck, has been expanding into New England in recent years. The company won its first emergency contract in New Hampshire in April, when the Somersworth City Council voted 7-1 to select American over AMR.
At the core of the billing disputes with AMR were charges that could exceed $2,000 for a trip to the hospital. The final bill would often end up being lowered, but not before customers complained of a complicated and frustrating process dealing with AMR’s billing office in Ohio.
Burkush said lower customer rates were part of the new contract. Burkush said AMR agreed to lower its rates after American, in its original proposal, proposed lower rates.
Burkush said that American’s main disadvantage was that it didn’t have experience contracting with a city the size of Manchester.
“We know some of the people involved (at American), but we were unable to contact a fire chief that had a similar system to us (for a reference),” he said.
The proposals were reviewed by a special ad-hoc committee that included the city’s finance, legal and health directors, and Aldermen Dan O’Neil and Jim Roy, a former firefighter.
Roy strongly criticized the chief’s recommendation, noting that all the department heads felt that American was the stronger candidate.
He also said he believed AMR’s application should have been invalidated because it did not properly disclose legal actions against the company.“That’s probably the most glaring thing,” Roy said. “One of the parts of the evaluation process is legal performance. If you got a zero on that, the way I read it, you’re out of the process.”AMR, which is the largest private ambulance company in the country, has faced legal action over its billing practices in several states. In 2011, it settled with the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, paying a $2.7 million fine and signing a “Corporate Integrity Agreement,” related to practices in the company’s New York City office.
O’Neil, however, said he now supported AMR. O’Neil had been among the most outspoken critics of the company, alluding to the difficulties his own wife faced in settling a bill.
At a meeting in March, he stated, “AMR lost the city’s trust.”
On Monday, O’Neil said that speaking with AMR’s new CEO made him feel comfortable the company had changed course. If problems arise, he said, “I can call him on his cell phone.”
O’Neil also pointed to a letter from the International Association of Fire Fighters, in Washington, D.C., that accused American of attempting to “manipulate” the bid process by suggesting that the union supported American.
The letter alludes to a communication from David Lang, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, that it describes as “a one-way correspondence that implies IAFF support to a company where none exists.”
American Chief Operating Officer Brendan McNiff said the letter in question was submitted to counter a false rumor that the company’s parent company had a plan to offer private firefighting services.
McNiff also has a history with AMR; he was one of the executives who left amid a shake-up late last year.
Since the staff reorganization, top executives from AMR have flown into the city to meet with the mayor and other officials in an attempt to address the issues.
Gatsas has expressed support for AMR in recent months.
“I think they’ve been handling the job without issues the past five months,” he said on Monday.
As for the position of his department heads on the contract, Gatsas said, “I’m going to sit down and talk with them about why they’re leaning in that direction.”
The full Board of Mayor and Aldermen is expected to vote on the contract at its July 2 meeting.