With contract about to end, Texas city council asks residents to speak out on EMS service

South Texas Emergency Care Foundation officials will be asked about response times; Harlingen commissioners may add a second agency


Fernando Del Valle
Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN, Texas — City commissioners are calling on residents to speak out about the city's ambulance services as the South Texas Emergency Care Foundation nears the end of its contract.

On Thursday, commissioners are set to hold a workshop to give residents a chance to offer feedback on STEC's emergency and non-emergency transport services. Commissioners are set to hold their workshop at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Founded in 1979, the South Texas Emergency Care Foundation, a nonprofit, offers ambulance service across most of Cameron County.
Founded in 1979, the South Texas Emergency Care Foundation, a nonprofit, offers ambulance service across most of Cameron County. (Photo/South Texas Emergency Care Foundation via Facebook)

Next month, STEC's five-year contract offering exclusive rights to provide ambulance service within the city limits expires.

"The purpose of the workshop is to look at response times for both emergency and non-emergency transports," Commissioner Daniel Lopez stated Tuesday.

Commissioner Frank Morales said he wants STEC officials to respond to questions regarding response times.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Ford Kinsley said he believes commissioners want residents' feedback as they consider renewing STEC's contract.

Mulling allowing outside companies to offer non-emergency service

Commissioners are trying to determine if the city needs another company to help provide non-emergency ambulance service, Lopez stated.

"Collectively, we need to determine whether another provider is needed to assist in non-emergency transports," he stated. "It is my primary goal to provide the residents of Harlingen the most effective and efficient care during their times of need."

Seeking contract renewal

On Tuesday, attorney Randy Whittington, representing STEC, said officials want to work to renew their contract.

"I think STEC's looking forward to having a discussion and working out whatever we have to do to get a contract renewal," he said.

Whittington said commissioners are not questioning STEC's emergency response times.

"Everybody's told us they have no concern about STEC's performance in respect to emergency or 911 responses," he said.

Months of heated debate

Last year, members of the city's past commission were considering scraping the contract's exclusive rights clause to allow other companies to offer lucrative non-emergency transport services.

For years, a city ordinance has given STEC exclusive rights to provide ambulance service in town, granting police the power to warn or cite outside ambulance companies entering the city limits.

During months of heated debate, former Commissioners Frank Puente and Richard Uribe, who each lost re-election bids in May, argued some residents complained of slow response times for non-emergency calls.

However, Whittington, who said complaints were limited to a "handful" of calls, maintained some ambulances were tied up, waiting for short-staffed hospitals to open patient beds during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Funding costly emergency service

Through last year's debate, STEC officials warned competition would eat into revenue generated through the company's non-emergency transport service, which helps fund its emergency ambulance runs.

About 10 years ago, STEC stopped charging the city as much as $500,000 a year to provide ambulance service.

Instead, the company began charging its patients.

"We've had some discussions with the new commission and hopefully everyone understands STEC's benefits to the community," Whittington said.

About five years ago, STEC boosted its rates to range from $795 for basic life support to $1,220 in the area where about half its patients are on Medicare and Medicaid, which reimburses about a third of billings, company officials said.

Background

In 1979, city leaders founded STEC to provide ambulance service in town.

Today, the nonprofit, which offers ambulance service across most of Cameron County, stations eight to 11 ambulances in the Harlingen area, officials said.

Agreements with other regional emergency medical services companies offer the city backup ambulance service, they said.

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(c)2022 Valley Morning Star

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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