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Ambulance company sues rival in contract dispute

TAMPA — An ambulance company trying to expand its business in Hillsborough County filed suit Thursday, asking a judge to decide whether a competitor can block it from doing so.

TransCare Medical Transportation Services currently has permits allowing it to respond to non-emergency 911 calls and transport mental health patients between treatment centers. It now wants permission to transport all types of patients between health care facilities.

But American Medical Response Ambulance Service, known as AMR, says a 17-year-old agreement it has with TransCare prohibits the company from expanding into all so-called interfacility transports. It has threatened to sue TransCare for breach of contract and has said that the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates ambulances, could be liable as well if it permits the expansion.

It has filed its own legal documents seeking to force arbitration on the matter, which it says is required under the 1996 agreement it has with TransCare, something TransCare disputes. The company has thus far refused to participate. AMR is seeking to proceed with or without TransCare's participation.

"AMR's bullying tactics and unilateral attempts to mandate arbitration are outrageous, unlawful and harmful to TransCare and others attempting to follow the law and rules relating to their occupation," the lawsuit by TransCare states.

The case seeks to put any attempt at arbitration by AMR on hold while a judge decides whether TransCare is bound by the 1996 agreement, which it contends it is not.

A call to an AMR attorney was not returned Thursday.

Meanwhile, TransCare is still asking the PTC to lift restrictions on the types of patients it can transport, saying the private agreement has no bearing on that decision. A hearing officer so far has agreed and is scheduled to take up the request March 14.

TransCare is a subsidiary of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which provides services to the mentally ill, with the ambulance business helping subsidize the larger operation. It first got into the ambulance business in 1996, winning three permits to answer non-emergency 911 calls.

By doing so, it was also seeking the ability to transport all types of patients between health care centers through private agreements, a potentially lucrative business compared to answering 911 calls.

But AMR objected to the application before the PTC.

TransCare struck an agreement with AMR, saying it would limit its transport business to people who are committed to mental health treatment under the state's Baker Act. So AMR withdrew its objection. TransCare also could respond to non-emergency 911 calls.

The company has since won more ambulance permits and approval to transport a broader assortment of mental health patients.

It is now the first responder to non-emergency 911 calls in Tampa and a backup in unincorporated areas if AMR or AmeriCare Ambulance Service, the other major provider, is unavailable.

Steve Anderson, an attorney for TransCare, says much of that expansion went unchallenged by AMR.

Both of the other companies successfully fought an attempt by TransCare to expand into all transports in 2010.

Now TransCare is trying again and AMR is citing the 1996 agreement, among other arguments, to block the latest application.

Anderson said the 1996 agreement is only relevant to its application that year and didn't bind TransCare from ever expanding its business.

"We're saying it's totally void and improper, and we're going to ask a judge to make that decision," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Ambulance company sues rival in contract dispute 02/28/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 12:08am]

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