Las Vegas council OKs ambulance service deal

Las Vegas’ dual response ambulance transport system is dead. Long live the dual response system.

That was the takeaway at City Hall on Wednesday, where city leaders put a clear end to a months-long tug of war between the city’s two major ambulance service providers only minutes after hinting at the arrival of a third hospital transport competitor.

City Council members overwhelmingly approved a deal reached last month between the Las Vegas Fire Department and longtime private ambulance contractors at American Medical Response, ending a lengthy spat over coveted medical transport fees that culminated with accusations of wealthy patient “cherry-picking” aimed at Fire Department officials in May.

Ambulances from both providers have responded to 911 calls fielded by Las Vegas dispatchers for more than a decade.

Starting in December 2015, only one ambulance — manned either by Fire Department employees or their AMR counterparts — will be sent out to handle those calls.

This week’s deal will see the Fire Department pick up the lion’s share of future emergency calls while AMR handles less critical dispatches and non-emergency hospital transfers.

The nonexclusive 52-page agreement also leaves the door open for Community Ambulance, a Henderson-based medical transport contractor and potential AMR competitor that city Fire Chief Willie McDonald expects will enter Las Vegas’ new-look ambulance market “within a few weeks.”

That could mean the emergence of a different type of dual response system, one that would see AMR racing Community Ambulance to pick up non-emergency patients who need a lift back home or to another hospital.

Community Ambulance representatives did not return requests for comment.

It remains unclear how or whether the city’s two private ambulance companies might split non-emergency transport duties.

Fire Department officials figure they’ll stay busy either way.

The department is projected to grow its share of emergency transports by up to 15 percent as a result of its new deal with AMR, one that consultants predict will net officials millions of dollars in additional annual transport fee revenue.

Chief McDonald insists his department is already well-equipped to handle the expected uptick in call volume.

He doesn’t anticipate taxpayers will have to foot the bill for costs associated with a spike in transports, explaining the move could mean a need for additional “peak time” fire units, but no additional firefighters or equipment.

“We don’t expect it to cost more money,” he said Tuesday. “We evaluated our system starting about a year ago. … We don’t intend to add any resources to our system.”

Both McDonald and Las Vegas leaders agreed the city should welcome competition in its non-emergency transport market.

Council members, who have expressed concern that a public bidding process could prove costly and time consuming for city staff, haven’t said how many additional medical transport suitors the city might entertain through franchise agreement applications submitted with the city manager’s office.

The city, which had to dip into reserve funds to balance last year’s budget, has doubled the annual franchise fee it charges for allowing AMR to operate in Las Vegas.

AMR CEO Scott White said despite the new $800,000 franchise fee, this week’s deal represents a win-win for patients and Las Vegas’ ambulance providers.

White hopes a new division of labor among the city’s private and public sector ambulances will help free up resources for life-threatening calls.

Reached for comment Tuesday, he shrugged off the possibility of Community Ambulance entering Las Vegas’ non-emergency transport business.

Asked about the company after Wednesday’s meeting, White hadn’t changed his tune.

“I think our concern will be an unfair competitive advantage,” he said. “We’re not worried about competitors, whoever they might be, as long as they’re playing by the same set of rules.

“We’ve created now, with this agreement, a surplus of ambulances. So that need for another provider may not exist.”

Contact James DeHaven at jdehaven@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.

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