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November 20. 2012 11:07PM

Manchester aldermen support extending AMR pact

MANCHESTER - Aldermen have voted to recommend extending for one year the contract for American Medical Response, the city's designated emergency ambulance provider that has been dogged by complaints over its billing practices.

Despite the problems with the company, the aldermen concluded that there wasn't enough time to come up with alternatives before the contract ends Dec. 31.

"To make clear my opposition, I'll encourage that we do look at alternatives over the next year, but in fairness to the Fire Department and our citizens, I think we ought to extend the contract," Alderman Dan O'Neil said Tuesday, ahead of a vote by the Committee on Administration/Information Systems. Later in the evening, the full board voted 10-3 to support the extension.

The vote came a day after the presentation of an audit ordered by the city after AMR acknowledged overbilling more than 300 patients for ambulance trips.

The audit did not find additional cases of overbilling, but it did confirm that patients are subjected to an aggressive and confusing billing process that frequently ends up with bills referred to a collections department. Another significant problem is that Anthem, the city's largest health insurer, does not have a preferred provider agreement governing reimbursements for ambulance trips.

Mayor Ted Gatsas said he recently spoke with executives from Anthem and AMR and expects the parties to come up with an agreement in the near future.

"This puts the city at risk when people are pointing fingers and we don't have a resolution to make sure residents are getting the best service," he said.

Gatsas also said that AMR agreed to open a local billing office.

AMR General Manager Brendan McNiff told the subcommittee earlier in the evening that the company had attempted to reach an agreement with Anthem. He said it was unlikely that their dispute would be resolved before the new contract begins Jan. 1.

"I don't know the time frame," he said. "They haven't responded to our attempts to reach an agreement. I don't know what the holdup is on their side," he said.

Anthem representatives for their part have blamed AMR for the lack of an agreement.

AMR, the country's largest private ambulance company, was awarded the city's 911 contract two years ago. In response to complaints over billing, the aldermen directed the Fire Department to analyze the feasibility of operating its own ambulance service. It is expected to present a report next year.

Alderman Garth Corriveau was one of the three aldermen who voted against the one-year extension of the contract.

"I'm troubled by this," he said. "Other than what's happening in the city schools, I hear more about the ambulance service than other issues."

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com.

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