PRC approves AMR to operate in county

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Valencia County officially has two ambulance services answering emergency medical calls.

Last week, the Public Regulations Commission voted 5-0 to grant American Medical Response permanent operating authority in the county, said Valencia County Fire Chief Steven Gonzales.

AMR will join Living Cross Ambulance Service, which has served the county since 1985.

In April, AMR was granted a 90-day temporary authority to operate in the county. Since then, having up to seven ambulances in the county responding to calls has made a difference.

Gonzales said since the approval of the temporary authority, county emergency services has seen a decrease in response times for medical emergency calls.

"The decreased response time was a major benefit as well as the availability to move patients in a timely manner." Gonzales said.

Nicholas Moya, the division chief for county EMS, said the department's biggest challenge has been the turn-around time.

"It can be an hour, hour-and-a-half or more, from the pick up of the patient to the time the ambulance is back in service," Moya said. "With both companies operating, we have seen a decline in the numbers our (county) rescue units have to transport."

When an ambulance from either Living Cross Ambulance or AMR picks up patients in Valencia County, they are usually transported to a hospital or medical facility in Albuquerque.

Once the patient arrives at the destination, ambulance personnel have to transfer care over, a process that can sometimes be time-consuming.

In the past, when Living Cross was the county's only ambulance service, the Valencia County EMS units and personnel would sometimes be called out to transport patients because ambulances were still out on other calls.

The county EMS system has some paid personnel but the majority is staffed by volunteers.

Over the years, volunteer numbers have fallen off, frequently making it difficult to staff emergency medical units, especially during typical work-day hours.

During an interview after AMR had been granted temporary authority this spring, Moya said the department started tracking instances where a county rescue unit initiated north-bound travel in April 2011.

In those 10 months, he said there were 18 instances of a county rescue unit heading north, either going all the way to Albuquerque or meeting Living Cross for a transfer.

"We saw a drastic increase last year — it jumped up to 59," Moya said. "The bottom line is patient care; making sure patients get a timely response from an ambulance."

Gonzales emphasized that the addition of a second ambulance service was in no way an attempt on the county's part to push Living Cross out of business.

"That is not the goal. The goal for Valencia County emergency services is to have patients in need reach definitive care in a timely manner," the chief said. "The biggest challenges we've had were extended wait times and finding ourselves in the position of having to send what's available instead of the best level of care for the patients. Now all our patients are guaranteed a response by someone (who is certified) up to a paramedic."

John Valentine, general manager for AMR's New Mexico and Arizona operations, said once permanent approval is signed, representatives from AMR will "sit down with everybody and see where we go."

Since April, the company has been operating with two units in the county — one staged in the city of Belen and a second in the village of Los Lunas.

When one of those two was dispatched on a call, a third was sent in from Albuquerque as a replacement, to ensure there were always two units in the county.

"In the upcoming weeks we plan to meet with all the fire chiefs to see where the county wants to see us in 30, 60, 90 days, six months, a year, so everybody is really clear with where we're going and what they want and expect," Valentine said.

He added that AMR and Living Cross have been working well together.

"The dispatch center has been consistently working well. I know they have a busy system down there but I've gotten nothing but rave reviews," Valentine said. "We, as a company, are very excited to be in a new, evolving market and we are trying to bring patients the next level of clinical excellence."

Valentine said AMR expects to establish bases in both Belen and Los Lunas, and has signed a lease for a place in Los Lunas.

Questions to Living Cross were referred to attorney Joe Earnest. He did not return phone calls seeking comment before News-Bulletin press time.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.