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31 Days, 31 Ways: Budget Cuts Final Straw for Air Ambulance

DAY 5 of our month-long series on the effects of new state laws and budget cuts: The Rio Grande Valley’s longest-running helicopter ambulance will be permanently grounded this fall — and state budget cuts were the final straw.

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31 Days 31 Ways

Throughout the month of August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change come Sept. 1, the date most bills passed by the Legislature — including the dramatically reduced budget — take effect. Check out our story calendar here

DAY 5: The Rio Grande Valley’s longest-running helicopter ambulance will be permanently grounded this fall — and state budget cuts were the final straw.

The South Texas Emergency Care Foundation has operated Valley AirCare since 1995, transporting accident victims and deathly ill patients from the border to urban hospitals with trauma centers and burn units. But over the last several years, as cost reimbursements have continued their downward slide and fuel prices have soared, operating the helicopter has become an increasing challenge, said Rene Perez, the foundation’s director of patient transport services.

With 80 to 90 percent of its patients on federal- and state-subsidized insurance — and state lawmakers’ decision this spring to meet Texas’ budget shortfall by slashing Medicaid rates and altering EMS reimbursements — Perez said continuing operations just can’t be justified. An average flight costs Valley AirCare $6,000 to $7,000, and typically 40 to 45 percent of those costs are recovered, Perez said.

“Some of the patients we were picking up, the cost of the reimbursement doesn’t even pay the cost of the fuel for those flights,” Perez said. “It just looked like a tidal wave of things coming at us.”

Add to that tidal wave the reduced contributions from local and county governments, themselves reeling from state budget cuts, Perez said.

“Every flight you do, it’s a loss of revenue,” he said. “Oct. 31 is our projected last day of service, unless we win the lottery.” 

Web resources for South Texas medical emergencies:

Air Evac Lifeteam may be filling the void left by Valley AirCare.  

The South Texas Emergency Care Foundation will continue to offer ground ambulance services. 

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Economy Health care State government 82nd Legislative Session Budget Health And Human Services Commission Medicaid Texas Legislature