Does Fire-Based EMS Create An Illegal Monopoly?

Today’s burning question: Do fire departments that provide exclusive EMS services in their jurisdictions violate federal antitrust laws by creating an illegal monopoly?

Answer: That is the one of the primary allegations in a federal lawsuit filed last week by a California ambulance provider against the City of Huntington Beach.

AmeriCare MedServices, Inc. claims that Huntington Beach has illegally monopolized emergency medical services in the city in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. AmeriCare describes itself as “a family owned, Orange County-based California corporation” and alleges it has been denied the opportunity to provide services within Huntington Beach despite the fact it is qualified by Orange County EMS to operate elsewhere in the county.

According to the complaint:

  • The city displaced a competitive private ambulance service with its own fire department, repudiating the competitive bidding process once and for all, in direct violation of state law. In doing so, it created an illegal monopoly in violation of Sherman Act Section 2.
  • The City of Huntington Beach established an illegal monopoly with 100% market power and an ability to raise prices above market levels—indeed, to any price it so deems—in A09, while providing minimal quality and speed of service without regard to market demand.
  • In direct contravention of State of California policy, the city displaced all competition in the market for prehospital EMS in the area comprising Huntington Beach. As a result, consumers of prehospital EMS in the relevant market pay supracompetitive prices and suffer slower response times and lesser quality emergency services than those provided in a competitive market.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act goes back to 1890. This is not the first time that a private ambulance provider has sought to apply anti-trust laws to attack fire-based EMS. Generally such attempts have been unsuccessful, based in large part upon a principle announced by the US Supreme Court in the case of Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341 (1943). In Parker the Supreme Court held that held federal anti-trust laws do not restrain states from regulating competition.

Where the AmeriCare complaint gets interesting is that Parker immunity applies when the restraint of trade and/or creation of a monopoly is the result of an action by the state’s legislature or the state’s supreme court. However, where the action emanates from another source, courts apply a stricter analysis. AmeriCare is alleging that because Huntington Beach acted outside of the authority granted by the state legislature in creating an exclusive EMS system, it does not enjoy Parker Immunity.

Pretty heady stuff… and definitely not in my wheelhouse. If any anti-trust gurus are out there that have a solid grip on this issue, feel free to help shed additional light on the subject.

Here is a copy of the complaint: AmeriCare v Huntington Beach

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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