By editorial board • 

Metro West should pull over in county lawsuit

Consumers should have the choice between Coke and Pepsi or Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms. Such is the free enterprise system.

Ambulance service, however, is not the same as breakfast cereals. Perhaps it should be. Maybe officials at Metro West Ambulance Service in Hillsboro are right when they say people should have a choice when selecting an ambulance company to transport them from one medical facility to another.

This is not Metro West’s decision to make, however.

Newberg city officials, together with Yamhill County commissioners, decided Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue should be the ambulance service that ferries people between medical facilities. People can call whomever they want — from Metro West to Aunt Doris — to take them to the hospital. For nonemergency transfers, Tualatin Valley has first dibs through its contract with Yamhill County and the city of Newberg.

The contract gives Tualatin Valley the right of first refusal, so even if facilities call Metro West to transfer a patient, Tualatin Valley can push aside the private company. Understandably, the folks at Metro West don’t like that arrangement. Jan Lee, a spokeswoman for the company, issued a statement accusing Tualatin Valley of trying to line its pockets in a way that will ultimately drive up ambulance prices.

Unfortunately for Metro West, that’s not the issue at the heart of a $1 million lawsuit initiated by city, county and fire district officials against the private ambulance company last week in Yamhill County Circuit Court. The issue is how Metro West, objecting to the contract, has decided to ignore it and basically “poach” ambulance calls.

When an individual, insurance company or medical facility calls Metro West for one of these nonemergency transfers, Metro West drivers take the call and don’t allow the fire district the right to take over. The lawsuit alleges Metro West has been told numerous times over the past four years to knock it off, but company officials remain silent and do as they please.

Metro West may have a valid philosophical argument, but not one likely to hold up in court. A contract is a contract, and the only revelevant questions are whether county and local governments have a legitimate right to regulate local ambulance service and whether private companies have a right to ignore such regulations.

Newberg and Yamhill County chose Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue for a reason, the same reason they chose the fire departments in McMinnville, Willamina and Sheridan to provide ambulance service in those communities. Government officials want the money spent on ambulance service to return to public fire departments and districts to help pay for paramedics and other emergency medical services.

Agree or disagree with that logic, private companies can’t ignore a legal contract. That would be like Joe’s Power Company getting a call deciding Portland General Electric has enough business. Lee said in her statement the company looks forward to being vindicated in court.
It is hard to share her optimism.

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