EMS contract raises questions

HARLINGEN — The city’s ambulance contract is raising questions.

City Commissioner Frank Puente said he and Commissioner Richard Uribe are requesting commissioners review South Texas Emergency Care Foundation’s contract during a Feb. 5 meeting.

“We just want to go over it,” Puente said, referring to the three-year contract expiring in September.

Puente said he’s questioning the company’s response time.

“That’s my biggest concern — response and (ambulance) availability,” he said.

Puente said he’s also concerned about an agreement restricting other ambulance companies from also serving the area within the city limits.

“No other emergency service can serve the city of Harlingen,” Puente said. “I don’t think that’s fair that other companies can’t serve us. The city’s growing so we need these services. I’d like to explore having other services in Harlingen as well.”

Puente said he also wants to review the rates the company charges patients, which he believes are among the area’s highest.

“There are different levels of emergencies that they’re charging customers,” he said.

The company’s base rate for its Basic Life Support service stands at $795; Advanced Life Support I costs $910; Advanced Life Support II is $1,070; and critical care support is $1,220, according to a rate schedule provided by attorney Randy Whittington, who represents the company.

“The base rate depends on the level of service provided and not whether the service is for an emergency or non-emergency and does not increase the amounts reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid for services provided to individuals eligible for those coverages,” Whittington stated.

Puente said he wants to review other ambulance companies’ rates.

City officials don’t request bids when they renew the ambulance companies’ contract, he said.

“I’m sure there are competitors’ rates,” he said. “They’re on top of their game. They’ve got awesome equipment and their mobile facilities are good but it’s expensive.”

The city’s side

Approved in 2017, the current contract states “the city commissioners of the city of Harlingen believe that making high-quality and reliable emergency medical services and non-emergency medical transport services available to its residents is of the highest priority.”

At City Hall, city spokeswoman Irma Garza stated the city has exclusively contracted with the company since 2007.

The contract requires the company, with 16 ambulances in its fleet, have at least three ambulances available at all times to respond to emergency calls, she stated.

With 13 ambulances based in Harlingen, the company covers the city from four locations, she stated.

Garza said the company, a nonprofit organization, provides residents the high levels of service.

“Harlingen residents have access to high-quality emergency medical services as well as emergency and non-emergency ambulance and transport service — 24 hours a day every day of the week,” she stated.

STEC’s history

In 1979, local leaders created the EMS service as a “community-based” program, the company’s website states.

“In the mid 1970s, Harlingen residents were without consistent available ambulance service,” Garza stated. “The city, community leaders, civic organizations and healthcare providers including Valley Baptist Medical Center and local doctors began working on the development of a modern EMS system.”

The company’s nonprofit status keeps rates low, Garza stated.

“Because STEC, as a nonprofit foundation, does not have shareholders and is not motivated to make a profit for owners, STEC has been able to keep rates as low as — and more often than not — lower than most fire department-based EMS providers and the dozens of for-profit ambulance companies operating elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley.”

“Because STEC does not pay dividends to private owners or bonuses to directors or officers, STEC has been able to reinvest its revenues and income back into the personnel and equipment necessary to provide its patient services,” she stated.

Currently, the company provides ambulance services to Harlingen, Palm Valley, Primera, Combes, Rio Hondo, San Benito and Santa Rosa along with about three-fourths of rural Cameron County, she stated.