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Featured, from left: Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, on July 9, 2015 at the Double Tree Suites by Hilton Hotel in McAllen for the 84th Legislative Session Wrap-up Luncheon on Thursday, July 9, 2015 hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

Featured, from left: Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, on July 9, 2015, at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel in McAllen for the 84th Legislative Session Wrap-up Luncheon on Thursday, July 9, 2015, hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

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Plan designed to maintain hundreds of millions of dollars for state trauma funding is approaching final approval by the Texas Legislature, reports Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

A plan that would help protect and increase revenue for a state program that helps pay for uncompensated trauma care costs for an estimated 130,000 Texans who are hospitalized in trauma centers every year is approaching final approval by the Texas Legislature, according to Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med.

In general, uncompensated trauma costs involves health care or services provided by hospitals or health care providers that don’t get reimbursed. Often uncompensated trauma care arises when people don’t have insurance and cannot afford to pay the cost of a serious injury or illness.

Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, which is headquartered in Edinburg, is the largest EMS (emergency medical service) company south of San Antonio. The privately-owned firm has 430 highly-trained staff members, basic/advanced paramedics, certified flight paramedics, registered nurses, and support personnel.

In addition, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med has more than 100 ambulances, wheel chair vans, supervisor units, as well as a communications bus used for disasters, and a special operations trailer equipped for mass casualty incidents, and two fixed wing Beechcraft King Air 90 air ambulances dedicated to emergency transfers. In a matter of weeks, it will be introducing rotor (helicopter) air ambulance services for deep South Texas.

The measure, House Bill 2048 authored by Rep. John Zerwas, MD, R-Katy, was unanimously approved by the Texas Senate on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. A handful of technical amendments were added to the bill, according to the Texas Senate News, so it must go back to the Texas House of Representatives, where lawmakers there can vote to concur in Senate amendments or request a conference committee to negotiate compromise language.

Texas Senate News is the state-supported news and information division of the Senate.

A conference committee is a committee composed of five members from each chamber appointed by the respective presiding officers to resolve the differences between the house and senate versions of a measure when the originating chamber refuses to concur in the changes made by the opposite chamber.

“In addition to protecting the revenue stream for trauma funding, House Bill 2048 – which was also unanimously supported by the House of Representatives on Thursday, May 2, 2019 – does away with the Drivers Responsibility Program, which in the past provided funding for uncompensated trauma care,” said Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med. “But many lawmakers believe that the Drivers Responsibility Program is financially and legally unfair to Texas drivers.

HB 2048 protects funding for uncompensated trauma care, “and we support the passage of HB 2048, which includes Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, as a coauthor,” Vazaldua continued.

A coauthor is a legislator authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives allow an unlimited number of coauthors on a bill or resolution. A coauthor must be a member of the chamber in which the bill was filed.

According to Texas Senate News, the Drivers Responsibility Program was “a controversial citation program that can put drivers in a cycle of escalating fines. The Drivers Responsibility Program has been unpopular among lawmakers since its creation in 2003, but because it supports the state trauma fund, it’s been difficult to do away with.”

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who carried HB 2048 in the Senate, provided a history on the Drivers Responsibility Program, and why previous state legislatures’ were hesitant to discontinue it.

“The Texas Legislature has contemplated replacing the Drivers Responsibility Program for more than 15 years, but we have been hesitant to change the program because it is tied to Fund 5111, which is dedicated to supporting Texas trauma care,” said Huffman. “This account assists in the treatment of approximately 130,000 individuals each year in medical facilities throughout Texas.”

Under the Drivers Responsibility Program when a person is cited for a traffic violation, they begin to accrue points on their license. Each violation adds a point, and points stay on a driver’s record for three years. If they accumulate six points, they must pay the state a $100 annual surcharge, with each point above six adding another $25.

It also includes much steeper fees for DWI convictions, as well as $250 for driving without a license or insurance. Failure to pay these surcharges can result in license suspension, trapping drivers in a system of endlessly compounding fees and fines.

“Because this suspension exists, and driving with a suspended license is an eligible offense under the Drivers Responsibility Program, certain drivers find themselves in a never-ending cycle of charges,” said Huffman.

In order to cover the $300 million in biennial revenue currently collected through the Drivers Responsibility Program, HB 2048 would turn to three new sources:

• It would increase the base state traffic fine by $20, up to $50;
• It would increase the fee charged on every auto insurance policy issued in Texas from $2 to $4; and
• It would also create new fines for those convicted of DWIs that are equal to current Drivers Responsibility Program surcharges.

Those currently owing surcharges or those with a license suspended strictly due to Drivers Responsibility Program non-payment would have their licenses restored and surcharges forgiven.

“Everyone will be moving forward with a new slate,” said Huffman. “The proposed revenue sources would actually put more money into the state trauma fund, with the Legislative Budget Board estimating a biennial gain of almost $7 million for 2020 and 2021.”

The Legislative Budget Board is a permanent joint committee of the Texas Legislature that develops recommendations for legislative appropriations for all agencies of state government. The Legislative Budget Board is composed of two joint chairs (the lieutenant governor and house speaker), three automatic members (the chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, House Ways and Means Committee, and Senate Finance Committee), and five appointed members (three senators appointed by the lieutenant governor and two representatives appointed by the speaker).

When the Senate version of HB 2048 was heard in the Senate Committee on Finance in April 2019, Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, Chair, Senate Committee on Finance, told Huffman that while she (Nelson) supported the repeal, any solution must adequately fund trauma care.

“If we do anything to change this, that trauma funding is going to be replaced,” Nelson said then.

The bill (HB 2048) offered on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, won Nelson’s approval.

“It’s what we should’ve done all those years ago,” said Nelson. “I thank you for fixing this horrible driver responsibility program and putting in place a trauma funding system that will work statewide for all Texans.”

Nelson was among a number of senators who rose to thank Huffman for her work on this troublesome issue.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said he opposed the original legislation creating the Drivers Responsibility Program during the 78th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature in 2003.

“We’ve made criminals out of a lot of people that couldn’t afford it and created a debtors’ prison by issuing arrest warrants for thousands of people in our state,” he said. “I do support trauma care funding. It’s important, but at the same time I don’t want it funded on the backs of poor people who can’t afford to pay the fines…thank you for working on this bill.”

According to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives:

• Transportation Code ch. 708 establishes the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which requires the Department of Public Safety to assess surcharges on drivers for certain traffic offenses in addition to any other penalties and court fees. Drivers have 105 days to pay surcharges or enter into an installment plan before their driver’s license is suspended;

• Under Health and Safety Code sec. 780.002, 49.5 percent of revenues from the Driver Responsibility Program is deposited to the Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Services Account, which funds designated trauma facilities, county and regional emergency medical services, trauma-care systems, and certain graduate-level medical and nursing education programs. Another 49.5 percent of DRP revenue is deposited to the general revenue and 1 percent may be used by DPS for program administration; and

• According to the Legislative Budget Board, the bill would have a positive impact of $9.9 million to general revenue related funds and $6.8 million to the Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Services Account in fiscal 2020-21

The list of individuals and/and or the organizations they represent who testified for, against, or on HB 2048 when it was heard on Monday, April 29, 2019 during public hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety were:

For —Nick Hudson, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas; Robert Johnston, Anderson County; Troy Bazan and Arthur Ramírez, Goodwill Central Texas; John Barton, Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas; James Dickey, Republican Party of Texas; Maureen Milligan, Teaching Hospitals of Texas; Mary Mergler, Texas Appleseed; Dudley Wait, Texas EMS Alliance; Ronald Stewart, Texas EMS, Trauma and Acute Care Foundation; Emily Gerrick, Texas Fair Defense Project; John Hawkins, Texas Hospital Association; Murray Agnew, Texas Sheriff’s Association; Tom Flanagan; Brandon Marshall; (Registered, but did not testify: Butch Oberhoff, Acadian Ambulance of Texas; Chas Moore, Austin Justice Coalition; Frank McStay, Baylor Scott and White Health; Linda Townsend, CHRISTUS Health; TJ Patterson, City of Fort Worth; Jim Allison, County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas; Charles Reed, Dallas County Commissioners Court; Priscilla Camacho, Dallas Regional Chamber; Roberto Haddad, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance; Traci Berry, Goodwill Central Texas; Cate Graziani, Grassroots Leadership and Texas Advocates for Justice; Taylor Landin, Greater Houston Partnership; Meghan Weller, HCA Healthcare; Scott Henson and Kathleen Mitchell, Just Liberty; Christine Yanas, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc.; Ryan Ambrose, Memorial Herman Health System; Joshua Massingill, Prison Fellowship Ministries; Christopher Lutton, San Antonio Police Department; Brian Hawthorne and Micah Harmon, Sheriffs’ Association of Texas; Russell Schaffner, Tarrant County; Rick Thompson, Texas Association of Counties; Lori Henning, Texas Association of Goodwills; Kathryn Freeman, Texas Baptists Christian Life Commission; Windy Johnson, Texas Conference of Urban Counties; Douglas Smith, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition; Marcus Mitias, Texas Health Resources; Jennifer Erschabek, Texas Inmate Families Association; Andrew Cates, Texas Nurses Association; Stephanie Franklin, The Liberty Project of Texas; Noel Johnson, TMPA; Stacy Suits, Travis County Constable Precinct 3; Andrew Smith, University Health System; Kenton Ham; Read King).

Against — Jessica Boston, Texas Association of Business; Beaman Floyd, Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions; (Registered, but did not testify: Joe Woods, American Property Casualty Insurance Association).

On — Jay Thompson, Association of Fire and Casualty Companies in Texas and National Insurance Crime Bureau; Bryan Sudan, Tarrant County Sheriff; Tommy Hansen, Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority; Tony Rodríguez, Texas Department of Public Safety; (Registered, but did not testify: Bryan Wilson, Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority and Texas Department of Motor Vehicles; Jane Guerrero, Texas Department of State Health Services).

HIGHWAY 40 ROUTE FROM MONTERREY TO REYNOSA TO SOUTH TEXAS ADDED TO MEXICO HIGHWAY SECURITY PILOT PROGRAM BY CONGRESSMAN GONZÁLEZ 

U.S. Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, has successfully lobbied Mexican President Andrés  Manuel López Obrador’s Administration to include Highway 40, from Monterrey, Nuevo León, to Reynosa, Tamaulipas and into the McAllen area in a recently launched highway security pilot program.

Highway 40 is one of six highways that will be part of the pilot program.

In late March 2019, González traveled to Mexico City to meet with the Mexican Secretary for Security Alfonso Durazo Montaño. During the meeting, González expressed the importance of securing Highway 40 — a major artery for cargo and passenger vehicles traveling between Monterrey, Reynosa, and the United States — for both trade and tourism.

“I thank Secretary Durazo and the López Obrador Administration for working with me to improve security along Highway 40,” González said. “For the last several years, highway robberies, assault, and violence have inhibited the free, safe, and efficient flow of goods and people between Monterrey, Reynosa, and the United States. Businesses and families have been forced to pay the equivalent of a tariff in exchange for their safety — something that should be guaranteed. Having spent a large part of my young life in Monterrey, I know that the strength of our binational economic relationship is measured not only by the number of dollars, pesos, and products that cross our borders but also in terms of trust, security, certainty, and efficiency. I am hopeful that securing this highway will create additional opportunities for cross-border trade and travel.”

González now plans to meet with community leaders in Monterrey and Reynosa to discuss how to make the pilot program a permanent plan.

“I plan to pursue this matter so that families and those in the real estate, banking, agriculture, oil and gas, medical, and transportation sectors reap the benefits in the long-term,” González said. “At the end of the day, the more investment we can attract to our region, the more our region can grow and flourish.”

Currently, Mexico is the United States’ largest trading partner. About $1.3 billion in goods move daily between the two countries. Monterrey is the third largest city in Mexico and is known as the industrial capital of Mexico. Mexico City is the largest city and Guadalajara is the second largest.

McAllen is among the safest cities in America. In 2018, zero homicides were reported by police. About 60 percent of produce traveling northbound into the United States comes through the Pharr International Bridge.

“I appreciate the partnership we have achieved on this occasion with the López Obrador Administration and look forward to working together on other binational issues that may present themselves during his time as president and my time in Congress,” González said “The addition of Highway 40 to the pilot program is great news for our families, friends and neighbors traveling to and from Monterrey. It is also welcome news to our local business and job sector that is directly impacted by this tourist and investor market.”

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José Borjon contributed to this story. For more information on key state legislation that affects first responders, please contact Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, at 956/451-6775. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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