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Texas lawmakers approve bill that could pave the way for regional Big Bend EMS service

 Travis Bubenik
Marfa Public Radio
Travis Bubenik

Texas lawmakers this week approved a bill that would allow the Big Bend Regional Hospital District to oversee a regional emergency medical services operation, part of a budding effort to make EMS services more reliable in Far West Texas.

If signed into law by the governor, the bill from state Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, would authorize the hospital district to run its own EMS service for Brewster and Presidio counties.

The district is a public entity, created by lawmakers to oversee indigent healthcare for the two counties. It is not directly affiliated with Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the area’s only hospital.

In a statement, Blanco said he filed the bill to address concerns he’s heard from constituents about how “low population density, great geographic distances, and relative isolation from major population centers make emergency medical services expensive and challenging.”

The bill’s approval comes more than a year after officials in Brewster County were faced with a sudden scramble to keep ambulances running after the death of Mike Scudder, who for years ran the county’s sole EMS company. After Scudder’s passing, his family decided to shut down the EMS operation, raising the possibility that the largest county by size in Texas would have no local ambulance service to respond to 911 calls.

While county officials were ultimately able to keep ambulances running until they recruited a new EMS company, the incident prompted discussions about how to ensure the viability of emergency medical care over the long term in the region.

As the Big Bend Sentinel has reported, those conversations have continued this year in the form of a local task force focused on the issue.

The bill passed by lawmakers this week does not necessarily mean the hospital district will take up the job of running a regional EMS operation, but it paves the way for that possibility as talks over the idea continue.

“It’s sort of like, put that in our hip pocket, then we don’t have to wait two years for the legislature to come back around,” said Greg Henington, Brewster County’s top elected official.

Henington said he feels there is “broad support” for the idea of regionalizing EMS operations in the Big Bend, but that the plan coming to fruition could still be at least two years away, and finding the money to make it happen will be a primary challenge.

“I don’t want to hammer the taxpayers, we’re already paying enough taxes,” he said.

J.D. Newsom, the hospital district’s executive director, acknowledged that figuring out how to make any kind of regional EMS operation financially viable will be a hurdle.

“Historically, EMS operations are not sustainable,” he said. “And we know that out here with patient volumes, EMS is always going to have to be subsidized.

Newsom said the district and its board of directors have not committed to any particular vision for how a regional EMS service could operate. The prospect of the local hospital in Alpine actually running the operation has been discussed, he said.

Rick Flores, CEO of Big Bend Regional Medical Center, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

In the meantime, Henington said county officials are satisfied with the performance of Emergent Air, the EMS company that officials tapped just over a year ago to answer 911 calls in the area.

“Their stats look good, they’re fully staffed,” he said. “They’re like any organization, they have their struggles, but we’ve been pleased with them.”

Officials said the regional EMS task force could meet again this summer to discuss the idea further.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.