State lays out case against Kern's ambulance monopolies

Attorneys for the state, foreground, and for Kern County, background, assemble Tuesday morning, March 13, 2018, in Bakersfield, Calif., to discuss ambulance monopolies. (KBAK/KBFX photo)

The state's Emergency Medical Services Authority on Tuesday began to lay out its case against Kern County's ambulance monopolies, arguing that the county circumvented the law when it entered into exclusive contracts with three ambulance providers.

Representatives from the local ambulance industry, including several people representing former Bakersfield mayor Harvey Hall's company, watched from the sidelines as lawyers debated the future of their business model.

Hall Ambulance Service, Liberty Ambulance Service and Delano Ambulance Service each have contracts that allow them to sell their services within designated geographic areas without competition.

The state doesn't mind local monopolies, as long as they meet one of two conditions. The first path to a legal monopoly is through a competitive bidding process and the second is to be "grandfathered" in under rules dating back to the 1980s.

Kern County's position is that the three ambulance providers we have now are grandfathered into legal monopolies. The state, however, disagrees. They say that they don't meet the qualifications to have that status.

The letter of the law is vague, and there's not much written about the issue. The two sides have two different interpretations of the law. Judge Samuel Reyes will attempt to sort out those differences. The current hearing is scheduled to go for three days, after which Reyes will have 30 days to issue a recommendation.

That recommendation will then be passed to the Commission on Emergency Medical Services in Sacramento, which will vote on whether to accept the judge's recommendation. That commission is comprised of 18 members who were appointed by other the governor's office or the state legislature.

If the county prevails, the status quo is preserved. If the state prevails, the county will be made to go through a competitive bidding process and issue new ambulance service contracts to what may or may not be the same companies.

The first witness the state attorney called Tuesday was Tom McGinnis, who works for EMSA and is directly involved in the process of approving local plans for emergency services. He is a former Hall Ambulance employee, having worked there for nearly 10 years. He told the court that he left Hall Ambulance in 2008 to pursue a better retirement plan.

Asked about whether his past may contribute to a conflict of interest, an EMSA spokesperson said he is one person in a large agency and not capable of steering the ship by himself.

In arguing that the current setup provides the best benefit to the public, county lawyers acknowledge that Hall Ambulance was recently put on notice for lagging response times in 2017.

An Eyewitness News review of recent historical ambulance data shows that the problems last year were a first.

While not especially large donors, the ambulance industry has a history of contributing to the campaigns of all five sitting county supervisors. Sitting supervisors have received approximately $20,000 in campaign contributions from ambulance companies over their collective tenure.

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