OP-ED: Wildfires aren’t the only things burning in California

Every year seems to bring one challenge after another, and in California, we’re used to tackling them head-on. But while Californians have become accustomed to wildfire season and the unpredictability it brings, patients in Contra Costa County have unfortunately also become accustomed to their quality of emergency medical services (EMS) going up in flames. To make matters worse, our state officials are considering legislation that would guarantee this inadequate patient care continues.

As many Contra Costa residents are well aware, the county fire departments have absorbed ambulance services – previously provided by private operators at a lower cost to taxpayers – to pad their already bloated pensions since 2016. What many residents probably don’t know, is that 60 to 80 percent of the fire department’s budget goes to paying off their pension obligations. The California Pension Tracker notes that the market basis pension liability per household is $81,634. That sum surpasses many residents’ annual income. To fund upcoming pension payments that are currently underfunded, fire unions have called for additional tax measures and service redistribution that ultimately leaves county residents at a disadvantage. So, while residents are seeing costs go up, they’re seeing EMS response times and quality of care diminish. That’s just not right.

In Contra Costa, our ambulance services are dictated by something deemed the Alliance model. This is where the fire department is given complete control of all emergency services, without the typical oversight of an EMS agency. This type of model breeds misbehavior because oversight is virtually non-existent, and the fire department can run ambulance services as they see fit. It’s no wonder that in 2018 the California Emergency Medical Services Authority (CEMSA) suspected that Costa Costa’s largest fire department, ConFire, colluded with the county’s local EMS Agency to rig bidding on contracts that supported public-private partnerships in ambulance services. They simply want the services for themselves, while subcontracting it to a private company for cheap. A win-win for ConFire, but a loss for everyone else.

Assemblyman Tim Grayson introduced legislation that would codify this backwards EMS services model at the state level, and Contra Costa’s misbehavior will become commonplace. Assembly Bill 389 (AB 389) allows a county to develop an EMS program where the fire department holds all decision-making power regarding ambulance services. AB 389 not only hurts the patients EMS programs serve, but it also hurts the programs’ workers too. This legislation hinders the worker’s ability to bargain over working conditions, like fatigue relief, and is one of the many reasons both AFSCME and SEIU have publicly opposed it.

As healthcare workers are already facing higher levels of burnout and exhaustion, now is not the time to diminish what benefits they are rightfully given. Instead of championing measures that support high-functioning workers and elevated patient care, state officials are being hoodwinked by fire unions to further their own agendas. I find it troubling that ConFire gave themselves a 15 percent raise in the middle of a pandemic, rather than putting money towards community services. Yet, state officials still think they are the poster child of success and other counties should follow their lead.

Our elected officials should support legislation where quality care for patients and quality pay for EMS workers are the foundation, not inflating pensions to keep with the current status quo. Fires are raging across our great state, and that’s where fire unions should keep their focus.

Mark Fernwood


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