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Ventura Delays Decision on Fire Dept. Ambulance Service Study : Safety: The City Council votes to get an estimate of report’s cost. Firefighters, lobbying to take over paramedic duties, wanted it commissioned immediately.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Moving cautiously on a major decision that could change ambulance service in Ventura, city leaders have delayed ordering a study on whether firefighters should take over paramedic and ambulance services.

Instead, the City Council voted unanimously Monday to first get an estimate of how much a study would cost before voting on whether to ask for such a report. The council in three weeks will debate whether to go ahead with the study.

“I don’t know if (the study) will cost $25,000, $5,000 or $250,000,” Councilman Steve Bennett said before the vote.

Ventura firefighters, who are lobbying to assume ambulance and paramedic services, had recommended that the council commission a feasibility study immediately, to be completed before June.

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After the meeting, Fire Chief Vern Hamilton criticized the council’s decision to delay the study.

“Frankly, it’s a little disappointing,” Hamilton said. “The council told us to find new revenues, new ways to do business, and we’re ready to move on this.”

However, private ambulance company Pruner Health Services, which provides the city’s paramedic and ambulance services, praised the council’s action.

Pruner executives are battling the firefighters’ proposal because it would mean a substantial loss of business for the Thousand Oaks-based company. About 31% of Pruner’s business in Ventura County comes from the city of Ventura, said Steve Murphy, chief administrative officer for the company. He declined to release sales figures for Ventura.

“I think they need to be very cautious,” Murphy said of proceeding with the firefighters’ proposal. “They have a system that works very well.”

Councilman Gary Tuttle said city leaders will not be hurried on their decision.

“There’s a lot of money at stake,” Tuttle said in an interview. “I think everyone is afraid to make the wrong move and saddle the city with another tax burden.”

Firefighters say assuming paramedic duties and transporting patients would be a logical extension of the first aid they already provide. The department would also have the opportunity to generate cash for the city, fire officials said.

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“I am convinced that there is some money in it,” Hamilton said.

According to a Fire Department report by Hamilton, start-up costs could be as much as $362,000, and would include buying three ambulances and adding nine paramedics. Annual operating costs would total about $1 million, Hamilton said.

Revenues would come from voluntary contributions from residents and direct billing of patients, Hamilton said. The city would bill patients about the same amount that Pruner does and could make an annual net profit ranging from $150,000 to $500,000, he said.

Pruner officials say they charge a base rate of about $300 for non-emergency transportation and about $530 for emergency transportation.

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Pruner executives argue that their company’s paramedics already do a good job and that switching to firefighters would cost taxpayers money and expose the city to more lawsuits.

Murphy said the county of Ventura, which regulates emergency medical care, pays Pruner only $20,692 annually to cover some of the costs of servicing poor residents in the city of Ventura. Pruner writes off about $327,000 yearly for taking care of low-income patients in the Ventura area, Murphy said. If Ventura firefighters assumed Pruner’s duties, the city would have to pick up those costs, he said.

Murphy said Pruner will submit its own report in a few weeks and respond to the financial estimates in Hamilton’s report.

“Hopefully we can raise some questions that will be of value,” Murphy said.

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Pruner has a contract with county officials to provide ambulance services to most of Ventura County. The contract expires June 30, and the company is seeking to renew it. Pruner receives about $99,000 annually from county officials to cover some costs for poor residents countywide, but the company makes most of its money through billing patients for paramedic and ambulance services, Murphy said.

If the council endorses the Fire Department’s proposal, firefighters will compete against Pruner for a contract to provide service to Ventura. Any changes in paramedic or ambulance services would probably occur in July, 1995, at the earliest, fire officials said.


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