Ambulances may be placed on life-support

The county’s fire board could spend $500,000 — more than half its reserves — to keep an ambulance operating in Woodside and bail Pacifica out of its obligation to staff a coastside ambulance it has operated for a decade.

San Mateo County’s ambulance service is overseen by the county Fire Services Joint Powers Authority, which secured a 10-year contract in 1998 under which American Medical Response pays the JPA $4 million per year for the exclusive right to shuttle patients to local hospitals, according to Barbara Pletz, director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Department. Under that contract, Woodside, Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and Menlo Park each staffed one of AMR’s ambulances with their own paramedics.

Since then, however, rising costs have led Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay to pull out (in 2004 and 2006, respectively). Pacifica intends to stop staffing its ambulance in September, according to NorthCounty Fire Battalion Chief Steven Brandvold.

However, the Woodside Fire Department has asked for more money to keep staffing its ambulance, according to Woodside Fire Chief Armando Muela.

“Our district, being that it’s all rural and remote areas, was seeing ambulance response times of 20 minutes,” Muela said.

Because Woodside responds only to 3,000 emergency medical calls per year, AMR might not replace that ambulance if Woodside backed out. And without a local ambulance, response times could drop again, according to Larry Olson, chairman of the 17-member JPA.

The JPA was paying Woodside $176,000 a year to staff the ambulance, according to Muela, who estimates that the service costs the Woodside Fire Department $750,000 per year. Under a new, tentative deal, the JPA has offered to pay Woodside an additional $153,000 per year, and pay Pacifica $101,000 to allay that city’s paramedic-related financial crisis.

However, it counted on AMR to pay a portion of that money, and AMR has refused, Olson said.

“Right now, it’s difficult for us to make our money back on our contract with the JPA,” said Jason Sorrick, a spokesman for AMR. “We make our money solely on the billing of the patients we transport.”

In the coming weeks, the JPA will determine whether to foot the entire bill — more than $500,000 during two years — out of its reserves, which hold only between $800,000 and $900,000 now, according to Olson.

Those reserves are typically used for maintenance and upgrades, such as to the fire authorities’ radio communications system, as well as to cover any accident liabilities.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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