Going to the hospital in an ambulance is going to get a little cheaper for many Spokane County residents next month.
The Ambulance Service Board that includes almost all Spokane County fire departments and districts just negotiated a three-year contract extension with American Medical Response that includes a $100 drop in price effective in February.
The city of Spokane is the largest department not included in the contract. A couple of small fire districts provide their own ambulance service and do not participate.
The original contract, which was approved in 2010, put cost controls and performance measures in place. Patients have been paying $993 per transport plus a per-mile fee.
That price has been a point of contention – AMR charges residents in the city of Spokane about $600 for the same service, said Spokane Valley Fire Department Deputy Chief Larry Rider, who administers the contract for the Ambulance Service Board. When AMR asked for a three-year extension to the contract, Rider said he took the opportunity to bargain.
“We’ve been trying to find ways to leverage the situation to get rates similar to the city’s,” he said. “We got them to drop the current rate by $100.”
Spokane’s contract with AMR expires this year, Rider said. “They know they are in a better position to bargain with Spokane if they have us,” he said. “We leveraged our opportunity to our taxpayers’ advantage.”
The contract extension, which is in the process of being approved by the participating fire departments and districts, also stipulates that if AMR signs a new contract with Spokane, the price being charged to the Ambulance Service Board participants can’t be more than $100 above what Spokane residents pay.
“Getting it down to $100 is a huge success,” Rider said. “If Spokane comes in less than $100 (difference), they can’t charge us any more. We have a rate.”
AMR has agreed not to seek a cost-of-living increase in 2013, Rider said. The contract also includes a few changes to how calls are counted. AMR must meet response time requirements based on location and the type of call 90 percent of the time. For example, an ambulance must arrive in less than 10 minutes for a “code” response with lights and sirens in an urban area or within 20 minutes for a “no code” response. If an ambulance is more than 10 minutes late, the patient is not billed for the trip.
That 90 percent on-time arrival rate is unchanged but all trips in each of the county’s five zones are now bundled instead of being separated by urban, rural and suburban.
“What we’ve done, slowly, is simplify, learn and apply what we’ve learned,” Rider said. “The ambulance company has tried very hard. It’s a partnership, not an adversarial relationship. AMR has been great to work with. Things are efficient and smooth for everybody.”
Rider does random checks of call records to make sure response times match information he receives from AMR in monthly reports. He also sends out a postcard to 50 randomly selected customers every month to see if there are any issues with billing. That practice identified problems customers were having early on when they called to ask questions about their bill, Rider said. A change was made in information printed on each bill and the problem went away, Rider said. “I think that’s a huge success,” he said.
Overall the contract has made a big difference to people being transported by ambulance, Rider said. Response times have dropped since the contract began. There are about 12,000 calls per year in the area served by the contract, he said.