HARLINGEN — After about 40 years, residents here might get a choice when they call for an ambulance.

Earlier this week, city officials agreed to review an ordinance to determine whether they could allow other ambulance companies to offer service in town, City Commissioner Frank Puente said Thursday.

Since 2007, the ordinance has given the South Texas Emergency Care Foundation exclusive rights to offer ambulance service within the city limits.

Before the city passed the ordinance, officials gave STEC sole rights to offer service in town, Randy Whittington, the attorney representing the company, said earlier this week.

During a closed-door meeting Wednesday, City Manager Dan Serna and City Attorney Ricardo Navarro agreed to review the ordinance to determine whether officials could amend it to allow other ambulance companies to offer services here, Puente said.

“What I would like to do is find a way to tweak the wording to allow other companies to come in,” he said.

Commissioner Rene Perez said he’s also pushing to open the door to other ambulance companies offering non-emergency transport service.

“STEC is doing a great job when it comes to emergencies,” he said.

Earlier this month, a resident found a McAllen company offered non-emergency transport service to a Houston hospital for $1,500 less than STEC’s rate, Perez said.

“When it comes to transport service, I think customers need more options,” he said.

Reviewing the ordinance

Puente said he and Perez want to try to amend the ordinance to allow more companies to offer ambulance services in town.

“Staff agreed to look at the ordinance to see if they can without getting sued by STEC or whatever,” Puente said.

Puente said Serna and Navarro “were going to see if there’s some way to amend (the ordinance) to allow not just everyone but a few (ambulance companies) to come into town.”

On Thursday, Whittington declined comment.

However, he’s warned he would “defend” the ordinance protecting the STEC’s service area.

Since January 2020, Puente has pushed to allow other ambulance companies to offer lucrative non-emergency transport within the city limits.

Competition, he said, would bring down rates.

However, STEC officials have said they count on non-emergency transport service to offset the cost of providing emergency services.

The majority of Harlingen city commissioners are standing behind South Texas Emergency Medical Care Foundation’s exclusive contract for ambulance services in the city. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

Arguments and rebuttals

For 40 years, STEC, a nonprofit organization founded by city leaders, has held its contract giving it exclusive rights to serve the area.

Earlier this week, Puente said he was unaware of other cities with ordinances giving ambulance companies sole rights to service areas.

Meanwhile, he said some residents have complained of wait times ranging from two to four hours to pick up or drop off nursing home patients at the doctor’s office or hospital.

In response, Whittington said the cities of McAllen, Brownsville and Los Fresnos have similar “exclusive contracts” along with cities “all over the state.”

Whittington also said he was unaware of residents’ complaints about wait times while picking up or dropping off nursing home patients, adding residents should present any complaints to STEC.

To request non-emergency transport service, most residents set appointments, he said, adding STEC’s ambulances respond to emergencies before taking on non-emergency transports.

During the coronavirus pandemic, he said, STEC’s ambulances often wait “five or six hours” outside busy hospital emergency rooms.

For years, city officials had opened the door to other ambulance companies, Whittington said.

From late 1970s to 2017, the city allowed other companies to apply for licenses to offer ambulance service “but no one applied,” he said.

In 2017, he said, the city’s police chief scrapped the policy.

STEC’s three-year contract expires September 2022.

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Questions raised over ambulance ordinance; Puente calls on commission to allow other companies into town