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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lawyer says city withholding records

Staff writer

The city of Spokane has provided “incomplete and inconsistent” records about patients treated by Fire Department paramedics, newly filed legal documents say.

Because he doesn’t have all of the city’s records, private attorney D. Roger Reed says he’s having trouble identifying as many as 30,000 Spokane residents who could become plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging ambulance company American Medical Response has overcharged patients.

Without the necessary records from the city, Reed will ask Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque today to delay a scheduled April trial date, the documents say.

Reed is now suggesting a trial date in the fall, while AMR attorney Paul Dayton, of Seattle, is expected to oppose the delay.

The public records, sought more than a year ago by Reed under the state’s Public Records Act and later underscored with subpoenas, still haven’t been produced in their entirety by city officials, the documents say.

“Our efforts to identify those persons who are members of this certified (class action lawsuit) have been continually frustrated by incomplete and inconsistent city records,” Reed said in the court filings.

Because the records contain certain medical information, city attorneys said they didn’t have to disclose the patients’ names to Reed. He then sought the same information under subpoena by agreeing to a protective order that bars him from publicly divulging the patients’ names.

He filed suit in December 2005 against American Medical Response and its regional executives, Randy Strozyk and Jerry Lueck. The city of Spokane is not a party to the suit, but its exclusive contract with AMR is tangential to the litigation.

City Attorney Jim Craven did not return telephone calls Thursday seeking comment about Reed’s allegation that the city is dragging its feet in producing the records.

The lawsuit alleges AMR has overcharged patients living in the city of Spokane and violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act since 1998.

AMR’s current contract with the city expires in October 2008, but the City Council soon may be asked to cancel the legal agreement so the city can join other outlying fire districts in a county-wide contract with an ambulance company. If that happens, city residents could face even higher ambulance rates.

After AMR failed in its attempts last year to get the lawsuit dismissed, Reed was successful in getting the action certified as a class action.

Leveque later ruled the class-action plaintiffs, whom Reed is now attempting to identify, can pursue “exemplary damages” under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Exemplary damages could be as much as $10,000 for each violation of overbilling, plus attorneys’ fees incurred by the plaintiffs in bringing the civil suit against the ambulance company.

Reed is seeking medical incident reports from the city to identify former patients transported by AMR ambulances after receiving initial on-scene treatment from Fire Department paramedics, according to the documents filed in Superior Court.

Some medical incident reports have been provided, but Reed said they don’t square with other records from AMR.

“The medical incident reports produced by the city are so incredibly inconsistent that there is no way they can be accurate,” Reed said in the court documents.

He said the city turned over only 95 reports for January 2003 and 36 reports for February 2003, when the average number is reported to be 750 per month.

“It is incomprehensible that the number of medical incidents requiring medical attention from Spokane Fire Department and an ambulance transport by AMR dropped drastically in the first three months of 2003,” Reed said. “The city’s production for these three months has to be severely under-reported.”

If Fire Department paramedics ride to a hospital in the ambulance, AMR can only charge the patient for “basic life support” services, even if more costly “advanced life support” care is rendered.

That qualifier is written in the city’s contract with AMR because city residents fund the Fire Department paramedics and emergency medical technicians through an emergency services tax.

AMR admitted last year that hundreds of patients, some covered by Medicare or private insurance, were incorrectly over-billed for the more-costly advanced life support during a two-year period. AMR, the nation’s largest private ambulance company, voluntarily refunded $320,689 and paid an $80,172 fine levied by Mayor Dennis Hession.

The state’s Open Records Act provides penalties up to $100 a day, plus attorney fees, from government entities that fail to respond to requests for public records in a timely manner.

Last October, the City Council voted to pay journalist Tim Connor, Camas Magazine and its publishers $299,000 to settle a lawsuit for withholding the documents that had been sought under the Public Records Act.

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