Air medic services returning to Hidalgo County

From left: Paul M. Vazaldua Jr., vice president of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; David de Los Santos, EMT-P, Business Development Manager, Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; and Shawn Snider, fire chief, city of Edinburg. This portrait was taken on Thursday, Feb. 14, during an event hosted by the Edinburg Mayor and Edinburg City Council at Edinburg City Hall to congratulate Canales for his recent appointment as Chair of the House Committee on Transportation. (Photo by Mark Montemayor)

Air medic services will return to the area within the next three months after Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med finalized a contract Wednesday to obtain a helicopter ambulance, a first for the Edinburg-based company.

Kenneth “Kenny” Ponce, president and CEO, cited a non-disclosure agreement for not providing details regarding who the EMS company is contracting, but said the three-year agreement has the possibility of renewal. Per the contract, Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med will lease the aircraft and staff it with its own paramedics, nurses and pilots.

Ponce has been working to add a helicopter to the existing fleet of two small planes for the past few years, and the contract comes nearly a month after Missouri-based Air Evac Lifeteam, which owned a helicopter, ceased operating in Hidalgo County.

He isn’t worried the company’s helicopter will meet the same fate.

“We’re already serving the Rio Grande Valley,” Ponce said. “We know what the reimbursements (from hospitals and cities) are in the area, we know the ground layout of the county and we have relationships with the fire departments that partner with EMS. So it makes it easier when we’re adding to our existing services.”

Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med has been in operation for 12 years and covers the cities of Edinburg, Pharr, Alton, Peñitas, Sullivan City, Edcouch, Elsa and Donna, as well as unincorporated parts of the county. It also provides backup ambulance services for the city of Mission.

Unlike the company’s two planes, which transport patients from local hospitals to medical facilities across the state and country, the helicopter will be used for shorter distances and will respond to 911 calls and traffic accidents.

Standard protocol is for a paramedic to call a helicopter if a patient is, by ground, more than 20 minutes from an emergency room, said Paul Vazaldua Jr., vice-president of organizational leadership and government affairs for the company.

“Believe it or not, there are areas in Hidalgo County where someone is 20 minutes away (from an ER),” Valzadua said, either because of distance or simply as a result of traffic.

While an expensive undertaking for Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med, “we’re doing it for one reason and it’s for improving patient care,” Ponce said.

The company’s aircraft is currently based at McAllen-Miller International Airport, but it is in talks with South Texas International Airport in Edinburg to store the helicopter and planes there to better meet the county’s needs.

Having a helicopter ambulance serving Hidalgo County is also a critical component of securing funds for a Level 1 trauma center in the Rio Grande Valley, a legislative priority for the Valley delegation as there are no such centers in South Texas, with the closest being in San Antonio.

Level 1 trauma centers provide the highest level of trauma care, complete with surgeons, anesthesiologists, specialists and equipment available 24 hours a day, and The American College of Surgeons recommends at least one Level 1 trauma center for every 1 million residents.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said having a Level 1 trauma center in the Valley would be “unprecedented” and “a huge step in providing quality healthcare for the region.”

He is optimistic area lawmakers will be able to secure funds this session to upgrade the region’s hospitals, such as Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, to the Level 1 designation. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, have expressed support for expanding the state’s network of trauma hospitals.

Funding for such an undertaking would be included in the state’s budget. It’s too early in the session to know just how much money could be allocated, Canales said.

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Effort aims for upgraded trauma facility