Feb. 02--The South Metro Fire Department will continue ambulance transports in West St. Paul and South St. Paul after working out a new contract with HealthEast Medical Transportation, which owns the primary service license for both cities.
South Metro employs 37 full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians who are first-responders for all medical calls in both cities. Since the 1980s, HealthEast has subcontracted with the fire department to make hospital transports from the basic life-support calls, if needed.
Meanwhile, a HealthEast ambulance also responds to the other types of calls to help provide care and transportation, if needed.
The working relationship, which dates to the 1980s, is not replicated anywhere else in Minnesota.
But it was in danger of ending.
A year ago, HealthEast told South Metro it planned to assume all transports in both cities after the contract expired this past December. Laura Olson, director of HealthEast Medical Transportation, said in an email at the time that the contract with South Metro is unusual and the company believes "returning to the traditional model where the license holder provides the service directly is in everyone's best interest and a more efficient use of EMS resources."
The decision caught local officials off-guard, including state Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, who said at the time that it "really ticked me off" and prompted him to call a meeting with HealthEast officials.
But last week, while announcing the new two-year contract, HealthEast officials praised the renewed relationship with the fire department.
"This will mean faster response times and increased capacity for all emergencies," John Kvasnicka, HealthEast's vice president and executive medical director, said in a news release.
So why the change in HealthEast's view of South Metro?
Olson said last week that HealthEast and South Metro had several conversations over the past year about what she called the "fire department's deficiencies." Specifically, she said, there were inconsistencies with road-safety requirements, documentation and billing.
"We were able to really talk about how we can work together and what we can do for them and what they can do for us to make sure that this contracted relationship works for both of us," she said.
West St. Paul City Council member Dave Wright, who serves as president of the South Metro board of directors, acknowledged last week that there were deficiencies, but also added that they were not made aware of them by HealthEast.
"This process to renew the contract was actually a healthy one," he said. "We spent some money and did some things they wanted us to do. And so it's opened up better lines of communication between South Metro and HealthEast."
The new contract calls for a slight increase in the reimbursement HealthEast pays South Metro for its basic life-support transports -- from about $240 in the last contract to $258.79. In 2013, that income totaled about $260,000, which was money that HealthEast ultimately recouped from billing insurance providers and patients, said Mark Erickson, assistant fire chief.
Also, under the contract, South Metro for the first time will have to pay HealthEast an administrative fee equal to $1,395 per month, which covers the billing work the medical provider is doing for the fire department.
The hope, Erickson said, is that the new fee will be made up by an anticipated increase in the number of transports and higher transport reimbursement from HealthEast.
Wright said he heard from a dozen or so residents who expressed their support for the fire department and how they wanted the fire board to get a new deal worked out.
"The residents watched this issue very closely," he said. "And at the end of the day, HealthEast and South Metro feel very good about this contract. We both feel it's good for both us and the communities. That's really all we set out to do."
Nick Ferraro can be reached at 651-228-2173. Follow him at twitter.com/NFerraroPiPress.