Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Westmed

A little over a year ago, Westmed took over ambulance service in Monterey County, having submitted a substantially lower bid than longtime provider American Medical Response (AMR) for the contract. At the time I wondered if it was reasonable to expect more service for less money, but the county supervisors assured us they knew what they were doing.

So on January 1, 2006, a different wail began speeding by our house uphill to an emergency situation. For awhile Westmed ambulances announced their presence with a multi-pack of sirens that sounded like a whole armada of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances screaming through the neighborhood. It was really annoying. Worse, when driving it was impossible to figure out if the sound was ahead, behind, or somewhere else altogether.

Westmed has since toned down its sirens somewhat. Probably as a cost saving measure. For now we are learning that Westmed got in over its head financially, promising the moon and delivering a hunk of green cheese. Suddenly the bargain brand doesn't look so good anymore.

Westmed is asking for a million dollar bailout, and permission to eliminate ambulances in several rural areas including Big Sur. Imagine, leaving the hazards of Big Sur without ambulance service. How often do we see cars go over the side again?

Today's Monterey Herald reported:
"Westmed chief executive officer Allen Cress said the Big Sur ambulance simply doesn't see enough action to make it cost-effective, even during the busy summer months."

DId I read that correctly? Does Westmed measure public health and safety in monetary terms? I find that absolutely appalling!

Fortunately, some Westmed employees are speaking out. One, Chris Otherson, wrote a commentary in this Sunday's Herald. He suggested that the county should make ambulance service a public agency, much like fire departments, to eliminate the need to make a profit on emergency services. That is certainly worth investigating.

AMR, watching from the sidelines, has indicated that it understands the true costs and would be perfectly happy to return.

Its time for the county supervisors to bite the bullet and admit their mistake. They expected a bargain, but failed to understand the complexities. I'm perfectly willing to forgive anyone who acknowledges their mistakes. We all make them. Its how we resolve them that tests our character.

Its time to acknowledge that you get what you pay for. Either renegotiate the contract with Westmed so that services don't get cut, reinstate AMR, or consider making ambulance service a public agency.

As a taxpayer, I want the most for my money, not the cheapest service. I'm willing to pay a little more for quality service.

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Addendum: February 28th
I see in this morning's paper that the county is going to do the right thing. Big Sur service will continue with a county subsidy. Westmed was granted permission to reduce response times to other rural areas, though. The county will now consider other providers, including the possibility of forming a joint powers agency to provide public ownership of ambulance service or a public/private partnership. By this time next year they plan to have a completely new program in place.

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