Ambulance feud in Pharr

    PHARR — Ambulance companies are crying foul at the way the city here is handling emergency services within its boundaries.

    PHARR — Ambulance companies are crying foul at the way the city here is handling emergency services within its boundaries.

    Pharr commissioners are scheduled to tighten their grip on which ambulances can respond to emergencies within the city. They will be considering adopting a new ordinance tonight that would require ambulance providers to apply for a city permit in order to operate within Pharr. If passed, any ambulance provider that responds to calls and doesn’t have a permit will face a $1,000 fine.

    Other surrounding cities have similar ordinances.

    Pharr currently has a contract with Hidalgo County EMS to provide emergency services, but any other company that wants to respond to calls in Pharr would need to obtain a $500 permit and pay $150 fee for an inspection of the ambulance and its equipment.

    The city entered into the contract with Hidalgo County EMS — which is not affiliated to Hidalgo County in any way — in November 2016. Since then, there’s been a growing concern that other ambulance companies have been picking up patients throughout the city.

    Med-Care EMS has responded to over 170 calls in Pharr since December 2016 — but the majority of the calls have stemmed from the city of Pharr’s communications division, which is tasked with sending out units during emergencies, said Mack Gilbert, director of operations for Med Care EMS.

    “The only reason I go to Pharr is because they call,” he said about the city’s dispatch. “I don’t hunt for calls. I don’t look for calls.”

    Rudy Martinez, owner of Star EMS, said the procurement process for emergency services was flawed from the beginning and accused the city of “bait and switch” practices in a complaint he wrote for the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office.

    Martinez tried to file the complaint with the DA on Friday, but he was told his complaint should be directed to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

    In his letter, Martinez alleges the city did not notify him why his bid was rejected. He also said the city requested highly skilled emergency personnel in its request for proposals (RFP), but then negotiated a contract that calls for a much-less-skilled workforce.

    The city’s RFP calls for five mobile intensive care units (MICUs), which are considered the highest-level of emergency response vehicles, but the contract the city entered into indicates the EMS provider will provide five advanced life support units, which do not carry a paramedic on board.

    “If you have a patient who is having a heart attack, you won’t be able to give him the meds he needs to survive,” Martinez said about ALS units. “A paramedic (aboard an MICU) can give you nitroglycerin, which is what they use for heart attacks, versus an intermediate (EMT) cannot.”

    Pharr Fire Chief Leonardo “Lenny” Perez said the discrepancy in services required from Hidalgo County EMS stems from a typo in the contract. The city has already drafted an amended document, Perez said, but wasn’t sure if it had already been signed.

    “We formulated it from an old contract that we had,” the chief said about the document. “I left it in place instead of changing it. We all missed it. It was an honest mistake.”

    However, Gilbert argued that’s not what Perez told commissioners when asked about it during a commission meeting March 7.

    “Does Hidalgo County EMS provide the highest level available to the residents of Pharr?” Pharr City Manager Juan Guerra asked Perez.

    “The normal is ALS, and that’s what’s being supported,” Perez responded.

    During that meeting, Pharr resident and outspoken activist Lupe Chavez also expressed concern over the contract.

    “We have a doctor as a mayor,” he told the commission. “Every second counts.”

    Martinez and Gilbert say the city’s “honest mistake” could cost a person’s life and results in over $1 million worth of savings for Hidalgo County EMS.

    “It is cheaper to run an ambulance with ALS capability than it is with an MICU capability,” Martinez said. “Instead of paying $18 for a paramedic, you pay $15 for an intermediate. Patient wise — you’re getting cheated.”

    Hidalgo County EMS was ranked the lowest during the procurement process, and Perez’s recommendation to hire Valley EMS was not heeded. Instead the commission chose its current provider, despite a warning that it had just been fined $1.5 million for negligence in a lawsuit July 2016.