MERCED — Details about the new bidding process for Merced County's ambulance contract were outlined by a consultant Wednesday, while Riggs Ambulance Service officials spoke of expansion plans in parts of the county.
Officials from the consulting firm Fitch & Associates presented a step-by-step look at the process during an Emergency Medical Care Committee meeting — including plans to release a Request for Proposal by early fall.
They said the bidding process will be much different than what's been done in the past, and stressed the importance of transparency.
"The process has never been questioned, but the results were. And we want to make sure it's fair, objective and transparent," said Richard Keller, founding partner at Fitch & Associates. "If information is not being shared, it's normal for people to be suspicious."
A heated dispute brewed last year after county staff recommended awarding the contract to American Medical Response. Riggs officials called the process "flawed" and asked to reopen the bidding process, which county supervisors unanimously agreed to in January.
At the center of the debate was the awarding of "local preference points" to Riggs — which were later withdrawn at the suggestion of the state EMS authority. Keller said the local vendor points won't be a factor in the next Request for Proposal.
"It was pretty clear from the last one that the state agency doesn't allow it, so it won't be a part of this RFP," Keller said.
That isn't the only change in the future Request for Proposal, Keller said. His team has also placed a focus on clarity in the bidding documents, including defining expectations, the evaluation process, and identifying steps to resolve appeals through a hearing officer.
Keller said three to five evaluators will be selected, mostly from outside the state, to score the proposals from interested bidders. The identities of the evaluators will remain anonymous, but they'll have expertise in the EMS industry.
They'll spend three days in Merced, reviewing the proposals side-by-side and assigning scores. Bidders will give a presentation and answer questions on the last day, and evaluators will be allowed to change their ratings based on the question-and- answer session.
Keller said the evaluators are screened for potential conflicts of interest with bidders. "If they had a relationship, it has to be disclosed and they have to promise to be objective," he said. "If it's recent employment within five years, we wouldn't consider them."
Consultants also evaluated the current EMS system by interviewing stakeholders and analyzing three years of ambulance data. One concern identified was providing critical care transport, which is used when a patient requires a higher level of care and includes a skilled nurse on board.
Riggs Ambulance Service General Manager Steve Melander detailed expansion plans in the west side of the county during Wednesday's meeting.
The longtime provider replaced four ambulances this week: three in Los Banos and one in Dos Palos, he said.
Riggs officials are also gearing up to open a new 5,000-square-foot deployment center in Los Banos, Melander said.
Two of the Los Banos ambulances will operate on a 24-hour basis with the third ambulance remaining at the Los Banos headquarters, fully stocked in the event of an emergency. Previously, Riggs operated one 24-hour and one 12-hour ambulance in Los Banos.
Melander said the company also plans to add a back-up ambulance to Dos Palos, and a new one to Livingston — which has never had its own ambulance. "Once we do that, every city will have a dedicated ambulance," Melander said at the meeting.
Eric Watts, chief of operations at West Side Community Ambulance, voiced concerns in the past about his district's ambulances being pulled to cover Los Banos, but said his complaints have been addressed.
"Riggs Ambulance has really stepped up to the plate, and I'm real happy with the progress," Watts said. "Me and Steve have gained an exceptional partnership; I feel like I have a voice again and West Side's issues are being heard."
Melander agreed, saying the relationship with West Side Ambulance has grown stronger. "We've developed partnerships where it's well-supported and it's the best it's ever been," Melander said. "We are 100 percent behind West Side Ambulance and supporting them in any way we can."
As for the EMS contract's bidding process, county officials said they hope to select a provider by early 2014.
Officials are also moving forward with filling the EMS manager position, vacated by Linda Diaz earlier this year. The position has been posted on the county's website, according to Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@merced sunstar.com.