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Ambulance firm admits overcharging

The ambulance company holding an exclusive contract with the city of Spokane admits in newly filed court papers that it overcharged two patients who filed a lawsuit against it last month.

But Seattle attorneys for American Medical Response (AMR) said the two plaintiffs aren’t representative of the patients it serves, and the lawsuit should therefore not be certified as a class action.

The ambulance company, represented by the law firm of Short Cressman & Burgess, also asked Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome J. Leveque to dismiss the suit filed Dec. 13.

While conceding it overcharged plaintiffs Lori E. Davis-Bailey and Lorraine and Doug Bacon, the ambulance company argued in papers filed Tuesday that their claims should be dismissed because they didn’t pay the bill – their insurance did.

Without “legal standing,” the plaintiffs have no legal right to seek damages under the state’s Consumer Protection Act, AMR attorney Michael J. Crisera said in the company’s legal response to the lawsuit.

A hearing on various motions in the case is tentatively scheduled for March.

The suit, filed by Spokane attorney D. Roger Reed, alleges AMR has engaged in an ongoing practice of overcharging patients under a contract sanctioned and monitored by city government.

AMR is the nation’s largest provider of ambulance service.

The company currently has a five-year contract with the city of Spokane, which expires in 2008.

The contract gives AMR the exclusive right to transport patients within the city of Spokane.

But its monopoly status in the city also gives AMR a competitive edge in providing ambulance service to surrounding areas and communities where its rates, mileage fees and response times aren’t regulated by contracts.

The consumer protection suit alleges patients picked up within the city of Spokane are billed for more-expensive “advanced life support” (ALS) services when they only need cheaper “basic life support” (BLS).

The ALS base rate is $480, compared with the BLS rate of $348.

AMR’s attorney also filed a motion seeking to have the company’s Spokane manager, Jerry Lueck, dismissed as a defendant in the suit.

Lueck is a management representative, but not a corporate officer, and is not accused of fraud or misrepresentation, Crisera said in the company’s legal response.

Since filing the suit a month ago, Reed said his Spokane law office has been contacted by more than two dozen people who “contend they were overcharged by AMR.”

With the ambulance company admitting Bailey and Bacon were overcharged, “we think they will prove to be very adequate representatives when we seek to have this certified as a class action,” Reed said Thursday.

“We obviously disagree with AMR’s argument that the man who directs their Spokane operations (Lueck) should not be personally liable if his conduct as AMR’s manager violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act,” Reed said.

The company’s response times and other issues associated with the current five-year contract are the subject of an investigation by a three-member City Council subcommittee. Its work is not yet complete.

Spokane City Council members Bob Apple, Al French and Mary Verner, who are subcommittee members, are drafting recommendations, expected to be delivered soon to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

One area explored by the subcommittee was the Spokane Fire Department’s practice of restocking AMR ambulances with 911 medical supplies, including narcotics, from city fire rigs.

The Fire Department buys the supplies – such things as IV setups, trauma pads, oxygen masks, syringes and vials of drugs – using taxpayer funds from a 50-cents-per-$1,000 EMS homeowner assessment.

But neither the department nor the ambulance company has kept records about how many taxpayer-purchased medical supplies flowed from fire paramedics to AMR crews, usually at emergency scenes.

Fire Chief Bobby Williams ordered an end to that practice after subcommittee member French said it raised questions about “gifting,” or using public resources for the benefit of a private company.