Houston City Council increases ambulance service prices

HOUSTON (FOX 26) — Lost amid the clatter over firefighter pay parity and unsworn cadets was a near-unanimous vote by Houston City Council week to raise the cost of transport drastically in a taxpayer-funded ambulance.

Before Wednesday's vote, the cost of service was $1,076 per ride. That price will now rise to $1,826, an increase of almost 70 percent.

"This hasn't been adjusted since 2012," said Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena. "A study from (Finance Department) internal auditors recommended an increase. This is what we are pursuing."

Pena said the rate hike is necessary because delivering emergency medical services in Houston costs a lot more than it brings in.

HFD ambulances made approximately 145,000 trips to a hospital in 2018.

Trouble is, more than half of the patients served were covered by Medicare or Medicaid, which pays only a fraction of the retail price.

A whopping 35 percent of patients had no health insurance at all, which means only 13 percent of the sick or injured people HFD rushed to an emergency room actually carried private insurance.

"Our collection rate is under 40 percent for what we bill," said Pena. He and city council said they hope that by increasing the price of an ambulance ride, that Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers will then eventually raise their reimbursement rate.

Council Member Mike Knox cast the lone vote against the higher price.

"Everybody says the insurance will pay for it, but they are not going to pay for it," said Knox. "The insurance holders are going to pay for it. So we are increasing the fees for people with insurance."

As for the one in three patients without any health icoverage, Chief Pena says the city will bill them at the higher rate, but, as in the past, doesn't expect to actually collect much.

"There is a third party collection, but it's a soft collection, so it's not reported to the credit rating agencies or any of that stuff," added Pena, who estimated collections from the uninsured at one percent. "Does the biller make the effort to keep collecting? Absolutely."

The City of Houston is currently owed $396 million for ambulance service it has delivered mostly to patients who can't afford to pay for it.

Neither Pena or his staff would venture an estimate of how much the 70 percent rate increase would bring in over time.