City Commission’s majority stands behind STEC

The Harlingen City commissioners were set to discuss the contention of two city commission members that Gov. Greg Abbott’s order suspends city ordinance restrictions barring ambulance companies from entering South Texas Medical Care Foundation's service area.

HARLINGEN — Most city commissioners are fiercely protecting the local ambulance company’s exclusive rights to serve the city amid a push to allow more emergency medical care services into town.

Earlier this week, commissioners bitterly squared off after Commissioner Frank Puente argued Gov. Greg Abbott’s April 3 emergency order temporarily lifted a city ordinance’s restrictions banning other ambulance companies from entering the South Texas Emergency Medical Care Foundation’s service area.

Since January, Puente has pushed to allow other ambulance companies to offer lucrative non-emergency transport within STEC’s service area.

But during Wednesday’s meeting, Puente said commissioners didn’t consider whether Abbott’s order effectively lifted the ordinance’s restrictions during the COVID-19 outbreak.

After a fiery hour-long discussion, Commissioners Michael Mezmar, Victor Leal and Ruben de la Rosa voted against revising the ordinance to allow other ambulance companies to offer non-emergency transport within STEC’s service area.

STEC’s service

During a PowerPoint presentation, Rene Perez, STEC’s director of transport services, told commissioners the nonprofit could adequately respond to calls stemming from a COVID-19 emergency.

Perez told commissioners state and local shelter-in-place orders have led to a sharp drop in trauma calls.

“We’re seeing less people on the road, so less trauma,” he said behind his facial covering. “Our trauma calls are definitely down about 50 percent. Our call volume is down but we are seeing more flu. We’re seeing an increase in that type of call.”

During the virus’ outbreak, Perez said ambulance response times have averaged 7 minutes and 38 seconds — what STEC has described as “significantly lower and better than those national standards.”

With 13 ambulances, two aircraft and highly trained paramedics, STEC offers “the highest level of care you can get in the state of Texas,” Perez told commissioners.

Meanwhile, STEC officials want to hold onto their exclusive rights to serve the city and much of Cameron County, he said.

“We have been dedicated to the city of Harlingen,” Perez said. “We were created by the city of Harlingen as well as the Valley Baptist Medical Center — (they) got together and put the system together. So we want to maintain our area here.”

Resident calls for more ambulance service

During a public comment period, resident Delia Cavazos Gamez called on commissioners to allow other ambulance companies to offer non-emergency transfers.

“I would like for you to consider adding an additional EMS service to our city because as a patient I have waited … about six hours to be transported,” she said as she spoke through a telephone system during the meeting in which officials restricted the public to comply with social distances guidelines aimed at preventing the virus’ spread. “We need to have options and we don’t.”

Meeting ignites

The meeting heated up after Mezmar requested Commissioner Richard Uribe read aloud a message he received regarding STEC’s ability to respond to 911 calls while also offering non-emergency transport, the service which helps drive the nonprofit’s revenue.

Uribe said a STEC employee sent him the message.

“Another EMS provider would help relieve the workload of STEC by doing non-emergency transports which would clear STEC to do 911 calls,” Uribe said as he read the message from his cell phone. “At the end of the day, STEC is a great provider but at times overwhelmed at the demand it’s putting itself to do all the workload for almost the entire city and Cameron County, which in turn affects the city of Harlingen greatly.”

After Uribe read the lengthy message, Mezmar and Mayor Chris Boswell asked him to disclose its source.

In response, Uribe reluctantly revealed the source as Josh E. Aldan, whom Perez described as a former STEC employee who now owns a Weslaco non-emergency ambulance transport service.

“You told us he was a STEC employee,” Boswell told Uribe, who replied, “That’s what I was told.”

Meanwhile, Mezmar accused Uribe of “trying to destroy (STEC’s) contract.”

“So he’s competition,” Mezmar told Uribe, referring to Aldan. “He’s wanting a contract.”

Open meetings law questioned

Minutes later, commissioners voted down Uribe’s request to return to closed session to request Assistant City Attorney Alison Bastian address what he described as “a legal question.”

Then Puente hinted Mezmar had disclosed information discussed in a previous half-hour executive session.

“We discussed some items in executive session and they were discussed out there,” Puente told commissioners.

Boswell stands behind STEC

After Mezmar, Leal and de la Rosa voted down the request to revise the city’s ordinance to temporarily allow other ambulance companies to offer non-emergency transport, Boswell firmly stood behind STEC, which has held its contract for 40 years.

“It would be certainly unwise to do anything that would tamper with the exclusive right of South Texas Emergency Foundation to continue providing ambulatory services in the city of Harlingen because they are the premier emergency care operator in the state of Texas,” Boswell said during the meeting’s video-recording.

“We have a very unique partnership with them — a partnership that really was created by the city of Harlingen and an organization that really was created by the city of Harlingen. To allow potential other companies in and undermine their ability to perform these services by taking revenue away from them would undermine the very services we … need at a time like this when we have this pandemic in our midst.”