If you call 911 for an ambulance in San Diego, a different company will soon be taking you to a hospital. More than 150 public speakers weighed in on the San Diego City Council vote on a final contract with Falck, a switch from longtime provider AMR.
The council voted unanimously in favor of switching provider. AMR is scheduled to serve San Diego for the next six months or so and help with the transition
AMR has a history of issues with ambulance response times. The city's new provider, Falck, said it has a plan to fix that, but not everyone is sure they can.
"We will do what we committed to do, and we will be accountable for that performance,” said Falck's Chief Commercial Officer Troy Hagen, already on the offense in his address before the city council ahead of the vote.
"Ever since the city announced its intent to go with Falck,” said Hagen. “You, the council have been hit with a torrent of false allegations."
Public comment dragged on for more than two and half hours. Most speakers were AMR employees advocating against a switch.
"Changing providers will be unnecessarily disruptive to this community,” said one speaker.
Falck workers from other counties have also been critical. At a council committee hearing in February, several warned against switching to Falck, saying the company doesn't keep promises to unions, browned out units during the pandemic and abandons cities if it didn't turn a profit.
The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council penned multiple letters to the city council urging against signing with Falck, writing in part, "We cannot, in our greatest healthcare crisis in generations, turn San Diego’s emergency medical services over to a company that has shown such blatant disregard for its workforce..."
But some speakers, including local minority leaders and Falck employees, supported the new provider.
"I want to reassure you Falck is the better choice,” said one Falck worker who told the council he has worked for both companies.
The switch comes after a history of local service problems with AMR.
NBC 7 Investigates analyzed ambulance response time records from the Fire Department. From January through November of last year, citywide, AMR took longer than 15 minutes to respond to an emergency in 1 out of every 10 calls.
In some city districts that percentage is even higher - like in District 4 where AMR answered nearly 14% of all emergencies later than 15 minutes.
District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery’s office sent NBC 7 the following statement in response to NBC 7 Investigates’ findings:
"Every aspect of public safety has been a top priority for my office, including emergency response times in Council District Four. It is very concerning that my constituents appear to receive a lower standard of service, and I will consistently work to change that."
In one ZIP code (92119) in the Lake Murray/San Carlos area, AMR took more than 15 minutes to respond to 22% of emergency calls.
But it's not just AMR’s response times that have come under fire.
“The billing department was a nightmare,” said Larry Greenstein.
After suffering internal bleeding, Greenstein’s wife called for an ambulance. AMR transported the Carmel Valley man roughly 7 miles from his home to the hospital. During that ride, he says medics attempted and failed to connect him to an IV three times.
Months later, Greenstein said AMR billed him for hundreds more dollars than his insurance company told him he actually owed. Ultimately, he said it took a cease and desist letter from his insurance provider to get AMR to leave him alone.
“I fought back,” Greenstein said. “But I always wonder how many people don’t fight back and end up paying that additional money.”
Greenstein was happy to hear the city was changing ambulance providers. Falck claims it will speed up response times by adding more ambulances. But ultimately, he believes accountability ends with the city - not an ambulance company.
"There should actually be some follow-through on behalf of the city,” Greenstein said. “It shouldn’t be at the signing of the contract their involvement ends."
Under the new contract, if Falck does not meet response time goals, it could face financial penalties.
NBC 7 reached out to AMR multiple times in the last two days, but a spokesperson refused to comment.