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La Joya plans to buy ambulance, provide EMS service

The city of La Joya plans to buy an ambulance and start providing EMS service.

Mayor Isidro Casanova and the City Council unanimously approved the plan during a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

“I think it’s time to step up and provide service for our community,” Casanova said.

La Joya signed a contract with Med-Care EMS, a privately owned ambulance company, in 2018.

Med-Care EMS agreed to station an ambulance in La Joya and respond to 911 calls “24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at all times,” according to the contract, which La Joya released under the Texas Public Information Act.

At the time, Med-Care EMS competed with Hidalgo County EMS, another privately owned ambulance company.

The competition resulted in great deals for cities.

To win contracts, Med-Care EMS and Hidalgo County EMS agreed to provide ambulance service without charging the cities. They attempted to make a profit by billing insurance companies instead.

That business model proved difficult in Hidalgo County, where more than 30% of people lacked health insurance in 2020, according to data published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Med-Care EMS declared bankruptcy in 2018. Hidalgo County EMS followed less than a year later.

After putting together a reorganization plan, Med-Care EMS emerged from bankruptcy in April 2019.

Hidalgo County EMS never recovered. The city of Pharr purchased Hidalgo County EMS assets, including 98 ambulances, during a bankruptcy auction.

To break even, both Med-Care EMS and the city of Pharr started charging for ambulance service.

The cost left many small towns with sticker shock.

In March, the La Joya City Council met to discuss the Med-Care EMS contract, which expires in September 2022. Members reviewed a contract amendment that would increase the price from $0 to $8,000 per month.

It simply isn’t profitable to provide La Joya with ambulance service, said Interim City Manager Leo Olivares, who described the situation as “market failure.”

“And so where does that leave the community?” Olivares said. “It leaves us with ambulances that are not located here. They’re located in other cities close by and they do their best to provide the services.”

Interim Fire Chief Ismael Garza Jr. said people sometimes wait up to 30 minutes for an ambulance in La Joya.

“If we have a medical call, we’re looking at an estimated time of 15 to 30 minutes before they get to us,” Garza said. “Sometimes we have to call Pharr EMS because they’re stationed right here out of Peñitas.”

After weighing the costs and benefits, La Joya decided to buy an ambulance.

The Type 2 ambulance, which resembles a van with a high roof, will cost about $122,000, Olivares said. La Joya plans to spend another $15,000 on the equipment required to provide advanced life support.

“Right now, because of different factors, it’s going to take a year and a half to get a vehicle delivered,” Olivares said.

An $80,000 grant from the state will partially cover the cost, Olivares said. The biggest expense, however, will be personnel.

The city applied for a Staffing For Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which pays for equipment and training for emergency personnel. If approved, the grant would help La Joya hire four new firefighters.

Firefighters with EMT training would operate the ambulance.

“This is a very important step and expansion of services for the city of La Joya,” Olivares said. “It’s a historic moment.”

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