Lai-Bitker urges resolution of EMS contract
By Rin Kelly
Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker spoke before City Council on Tuesday night, urging Alameda to take quick action on its lapsed emergency medical services contract with the county.
“I want to let you know that the EMS contract is truly a very urgent matter,” she said. “The city has had many chances to resolve this issue over the last five years, and the county has been very patient … your council needs to make a decision as soon as possible.”
Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant had been prepared to give a presentation on the city’s options Tuesday but postponed it upon learning that Lai-Bitker had reached out to Mayor Beverly Johnson. Lai-Bitker and Johnson will meet Monday to discuss the matter.
“I have every expectation that we can continue negotiating and resolve some of the issues,” Gallant said.
Alameda County Health Care Services Agency acting director Alex Briscoe accompanied Lai-Bitker to the meeting. Referencing Briscoe’s September 3 letter demanding that the city ink a contract by January 3, 2011 or lose both its authorization as a paramedic provider of advanced life support services and its exclusive right to offer emergency medical care, Lai-Bitker said, “The letter you received from the county speaks for itself.”
It was the supervisor’s first appearance before council on the matter in the five years since the last contract expired.
Disputes over the contract center partly on how much Alameda, which provides its own ambulance service, should pay annually in lieu of the assessment the 13 other cities in Alameda County pay as part of the EMS district. The current county estimate is approximately $857,000, Gallant said.
Briscoe agreed the issues could be resolved, but warned council that he had been directed by a unanimous Board of Supervisors to adhere to the January timeline. “That timeline will not change,” he said.
In an interview following their council appearance, Briscoe and Lai-Bitker pointed to San Joaquin County’s battle with Stockton, in which that city was given only a few days, rather than months, to settle its EMS dispute with the county. When an agreement in that case was not reached, San Joaquin County officials stripped the Stockton Fire Department of its authorization to provide advanced life support services. Stockton’s fire department is now restricted to providing basic life support services only, a scenario that could be repeated in Alameda.
Domenick Weaver, president of Alameda’s firefighters union, urged council members to “find a way to satisfy this obligation with the county and move forward continuing our service.” He described the difference between basic life support – comprised of first aid and CPR – and the more comprehensive advanced life support as “about the equivalent of going from a horse-drawn fire engine to a motorized apparatus.”
City Attorney Teresa Highsmith disagreed with the county’s position that it is not obligated to provide advanced support services should Alameda not ink a contract. “The county is obligated under state law to provide those services; it must do so one way or the other,” she said. One option Gallant had been prepared to discuss was the possibility of letting the county take over such services, thereby lowering city costs.
Briscoe called this position, as expressed in a staff report, a “misrepresentation” of the EMS ordinance. “The county is under no obligation to provide ALS services in the exclusive operating area that is the city of Alameda,” he said.
County counsel also disagrees with city staff’s interpretation of how Alameda might go about annexing itself into the regional EMS district should it choose that option, Briscoe said. The matter will be discussed in detail at the Monday meeting, which will include city and county staff.
Also discussed will be Alameda’s failure to provide second quarter emergency response times to the county. Those data were due August 1, Briscoe said. The city does enjoy one of the fastest response times in the county, he added, and both Paramedics Plus, the county’s new provider, and its current provider, American Medical Response, have concluded that they can’t provide the same service cheaper or better than the Alameda Fire Department.
Councilmembers Frank Matarrese and Marie Gilmore asked that the issue be thoroughly researched and placed before the council as an agenda item as soon as possible. “We need to settle this – this is important to our residents,” said Gilmore. “It’s a matter of health, life, safety. And we don’t want to mess around with that.”
Vice Mayor Doug deHaan urged a slower approach. “We’re talking about $800,000 or more,” he said. “We can’t take that lightly.”
But Councilmember Lena Tam endorsed the proposed contract despite the added cost, “especially since Alameda still to this day has a higher percentage of people over 65 than the rest of the county,” she said.