Southwest Ambulance, which provides emergency medical services in Salt Lake City, is hemorrhaging cash. With less than three months remaining on its four-year contract, the Arizona-based service is crawling toward the finish line, losing money every day.
No need to worry. Southwest won't park the ambulances. The contract will be fulfilled. But if service is to continue beyond the Dec. 21 contract expiration, Salt Lake officials will have to sweeten the deal.
The city has three choices. Extend the contract with Southwest and modify the terms to enable the company to post a reasonable profit. Issue a request for proposals from Southwest and other providers. Or, bid private providers adieu and start a city-owned service, returning emergency medical transport to the public domain where it belongs.
Protecting the public is a core government function, too important to privatize. With its ability to tax and borrow and quickly adjust service levels without renegotiating contracts, the city can better assure that residents are well-served.
Mayor Ralph Becker backs the public option. But, instead of racing into the ambulance business with lights flashing and sirens screaming, Becker wisely wants to take his time.
Startup costs will be considerable. A fleet of ambulances must be purchased, equipped and staffed with 62 new paramedics and support personnel.
Becker estimates it will be one to two years before finances are firmed up and the city can take the plunge. In the current economic climate, that's a prudent plan. City tax receipts have been dwindling, and it will take several years for the ambulance service to become self-sustaining.
Southwest is amenable to negotiating a short-term contract -- one to three years -- as long as it's not losing money. But state law requires that emergency service contracts be four years in duration. The state would need to waive the rules before the city could proceed. Otherwise, the city will be forced to wait until late 2013 to launch the new service.
There's at least a potential for savings. By operating ambulances in-house, there's no profit motive.
But the greatest advantage for Salt Lake City residents would be an ambulance service that is more accountable and responsive to the people.
Privatization, for some services, makes sense. But not for vital, essential functions like emergency medical services. When employees on the front line answer directly to elected officials, control is one step closer to the people who pay the bills.
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