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June 25. 2013 11:00PM

Manchester ambulance contract debate roils on

MANCHESTER — The city's fire chief is challenging the accuracy of meeting minutes that indicated strong support for the company he did not back for the city's emergency ambulance contract.

Fire Chief James Burkush last week recommended that the current ambulance company, American Medical Response, win the next five-year contract. Two other companies had responded to the Request for Proposals, American Ambulance of New England and CarePlus.

The comments come as the aldermen prepare to vote on the contract at their meeting next Tuesday. Last week, the Committee on Administration voted to back Burkush's recommendation for AMR, which faced harsh criticism in 2011 and 2012 over its billing practices.

Draft minutes from the final meeting of the contract review committee, which included two aldermen and several department leaders and fire department employees, indicated that a majority supported American. Another sheet included with the minutes showed that American received a higher numerical score than AMR.

Burkush said the draft minutes were inaccurate because no formal vote had been taken on the contract. "The draft minutes were incorrect," he said. "We agreed (at the meeting) that there was no consensus" for one provider or another.

Burkush said the scoring sheet, which gave American 52 points and AMR 43, came from only one member of the panel, and that any other sheets filled out by the committee weren't tabulated.

"It was brought up, not by me, in the committee, that people felt (the scoring) was too subjective," Burkush said.

The revised minutes from the meeting, which took place on June 13, are nearly identical to the draft version, except they don't include a vote tally. That tally showed that six people thought American was the better candidate, including Finance Director Bill Sanders and Public Health Director Tim Soucy. Three people at the meeting backed AMR, as did, according to the document, two fire department personnel "who were not committee members but voiced their support for AMR."

Burkush has since said that the two fire department employees were members of the committee.

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Roy, who backed American and had released the original minutes from the meeting, called the new version "scrubbed."

"It's shocking," said Roy, who is a former city firefighter. "The minutes are the minutes. To sanitize them is above and beyond. Just because someone doesn't like the way it sounds, I'm flabbergasted."

The battle over the high-stakes ambulance contract has generated heated allegations, and has involved the state and national firefighters unions. The International Association of Fire Fighters has been critical of American, a division of a Denmark-based multinational corporation.

Brendan McNiff, American's chief operating officer, said he had "no idea" if union support for AMR, which is unionized and is the largest private ambulance company in the U.S., had swung any opinions in its favor.

But he forcefully disputed the argument that AMR had corrected its billing problems by setting up a local office.

"It's very easy for some people now to say, AMR fixed its ills. I worked for them for 20 years. They have consolidated billing in Ohio. What they proposed here are just to have some customer service representatives," McNiff said, adding that American would be setting up its own office in Manchester.

Until late last year, McNiff was a top executive at AMR. He said after he resigned, the company implored him to come back as CEO.

"I said no. It was a conscious decision. I wanted to join an organization that is privately held, and didn't put making money at its core, but providing ambulance transportation."

McNiff said AMR was highly motivated to win the Manchester contract in order to show it was gaining "market share" as its parent company, Emergency Medical Services, prepares to again go on the stock market.

Chris Stawacz, AMR's general manager for Maine and New Hampshire, maintained that, if the company does go public, it would not hinder its operations. "I think it would make us stronger. It gives us more capital to reinvest in ourselves and provide better equipment," he said.

Stawacz said AMR has greatly improved its performance, since a management shake-up late last year.

"We've worked hard to correct mistakes the previous management team made, and I believe we've made significant progress, and we're proud of it. We're glad to call Manchester our home," he said.

Meanwhile, CarePlus, the other company that bid for the contract, is calling on the aldermen to start over.

In a letter to Burkush and the aldermen, CarePlus CEO Eric Damon, wrote: "Under the circumstances and considering the perception being promoted in the media of a 'tainted bid process,' we would strongly urge that all bids for the current offering be discarded and that the 911 Contract be re-bid at a later date."

tsiefer@unionleader.com


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