January 25. 2013 11:28PM

Manchester's ambulance service rescinds price hike

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - The city's ambulance company is rolling back a 50 percent price jump it imposed at the beginning of the year as it moves to restore an image tarnished by a year of controversy over billing practices.

American Medical Response (AMR) rescinded the price increase Friday, saying it had been imposed at the direction of a since departed regional executive.

AMR Chief Executive William Sanger called the decision to raise rates a mistake.

"It was a decision made by an individual no longer with the company and was not based on where we needed to go as a company," Sanger said. "Unfortunately, the regional leader decided that in order to help offset costs, he was going to raise rates by 50 percent."

AMR said it has named a New Hampshire native to run its local operation and has staffed a local office to handle calls from Manchester-area residents with billing issues.

The decision to cut the rates was made a week after company executives were summoned from the company's Colorado headquarters to a City Hall meeting with Mayor Ted Gatsas.

"I would say that in the conversation we had, everybody understood that the city was very serious about getting control of the situation," Gatsas said. "I respect that, and I thank them for rolling back the rates."

Gatsas had called the increase "outrageous" and said he gave the company 30 days to resolve the issue.

Company executives met with Gatsas, and Granite State native Chris Stawasz was appointed head of local operations.

Stawasz previously headed Rockingham Ambulance during its 18 years as Manchester's ambulance provider. AMR displaced Rockingham after a bidding war three years ago.

Rockingham's owner, St. Joseph Hospital of Nashua, later shut the company down, attributing its demise to falling state-reimbursement rates.

Stawasz said his goal is to bring AMR's business operations to the level of service provided by Rockingham.

"We had a very successful contract; we had an extremely well-run system and a good working relationship with payers, the community, the fire department and the police department," Stawasz said. "My goal is to return it to what was successful."

Gatsas was an alderman during Stawasz's previous tenure in Manchester.

"He did a great job," Gatsas said. "He was reliable and a man of his word."

AMR was called on the carpet by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last year after residents complained of being overbilled and being unable to get help from the company's out-of-state billing center. An outside audit of the company's billing practices was conducted.

The city and AMR are working under a one-year contract extension, approved by aldermen last year, which runs until Dec. 31. The two sides have an option to extend the contract for another year.

In July, at the height of the billing controversy, aldermen voted to study taking ambulance services in-house and making it part of the city Fire Department.

Gatsas said reports he has received about the cost of bringing the ambulance service in house were not encouraging.

"The price increase that set off the latest controversy was for patients who paid for ambulance services out-of-pocket, or who had private health insurance with a company without a pricing contract with AMR.

Gatsas told the company he wanted AMR to reach an agreement with Anthem Blue Cross on a provider contract, setting rates that Anthem would pay for AMR ambulances services in Manchester.

Anthem, the region's largest health insurer, also manages the city's self-insured health benefits for city workers. Anthem and AMR sat down for a negotiation session Friday.