Calling the Houston Fire Department for a medical emergency is hazardous to your (financial) health

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Yesterday at Empower Texans, fellow watchdog and columnist Charles Blain reported on massive price increases being proposed by Houston City Hall for emergency services rendered by the Houston Fire Department. Reading that column prompted me to to sit down and tell my gentle readers a story about the Houston Fire Department and emergency services. So pull up a chair, fix yourself a drink, and be prepared to be entertained.

Long Long Ago in a huge city far far away….

Once upon a time, back in 1986 or 1987 or so, there was a young man and his name was Neal Meyer. Young Mr. Meyer was in his early twenties and worked for a few years in a fast food restaurant for a franchisee on the western side of the great city of Houston Texas.

One evening while I was managing the store, one of the delivery personnel who had wanted earlier in the week to work late on a certain night to close the store and make some money came in that night of a different mind. Instead of working late, said delivery person decided, for whatever reason, that he couldn’t work late. So he called me to tell me so. Now, the usual deal was that we could understand, but it would be up to the employee to ask other employees if anyone would like to take his place. If someone else agreed to work late, then fine. The employees would simply switch hours and all would be well.

However, it just so happened that nobody could be found who was willing on this particular night to work late. Hence, I had to tell said delivery person that he was still on the hook and I expected him to be there. What transpired that night was typical of what one encounters while working in the low-wage, pressure-cooker world of the restaurant business. The delivery person continually pressured me for the entire evening to let him go home,  claiming that he was seriously ill, while I was trying to manage the store. Eventually, around 10:00 – 11:00pm, as I was letting another employee out for the evening, I saw a whirling set of red lights flicker off the inside walls of the store.

“What the **** is this all about?” I thought to myself. It didn’t take long for me to find out, for it was none other than emergency personnel from the Houston Fire Department rolling up…. in an ambulance vehicle.

As the three men from HFD strolled up into the store, their eyes immediately fell on me. “Are you the one who called us about an emergency?” I was asked.

“No sir,” I replied.

“Then who was it?” came the reply from the HFD man in a tone of growing menace.

I then turned to the highly likely suspect and asked said highly likely suspect if he had called the fire department. Well, he piped up in his smart tone, yes he had. And he told them he needed to get taken to the hospital!

“What exactly is wrong?” inquired the driver of the ambulance. “You look to be perfectly fine to me.”

“Well, I am sick in my stomach. I can’t explain, and my manager won’t believe me. He is just awful!”

The HFD ambulance driver was not amused. He turned to my delivery driver and said, “Let me make this clear to you. I can take you to the hospital, but since it seems that you made the phone call, you will have to pay for this $120 taxi ride. Are you sure you want to pay for us to take you there?” My delivery driver backed down, and the HFD personnel walked up to me. I apologized for what happened, and much to my relief they drove away. That night, I fired the recalcitrant driver and the manager of the store backed me up. Such are the joys of working in the fast food business.

So what’s your point Neal?

The point is this: The price for being taken to a hospital in an ambulance in the City of Houston back 30 years ago was, as I pointed out in my story, $120. Running that $120 figure in 1987 dollars through various online inflation calculators generally yields a result that such an emergency ambulance trip would cost roughly $270 in 2018 dollars. And yet, as Mr. Blain notes in his Empower Texans article, the current cost of an emergency ambulance trip by HFD is now a whopping $1,104.65 — and a proposal is now on the table to increase the cost of a trip to $1,876.40! Accounting for inflation, that amounts to the City of Houston imposing a four-fold increase in HFD emergency ambulance charges over the past 30 years, with a nearly seven-fold increase now being proposed.

Now at this point, there will likely be a bunch of tongues wagging about the government needing to keep prices for emergency services high enough to deter pranksters such as my long-gone driver from clogging up the system with frivolous calls for non-emergency help. There is, I suppose, a point in doing that. Yet, setting aside the issue of what exactly is the real cost of transporting someone in an ambulance to the hospital (and how much is it really?), it would seem to me that setting the cost of an ambulance trip to perhaps $500 – 600 or so, and requiring anyone who would make such a call to pay up right then and there, would likely be enough to deter most people from making a frivolous call to the Houston Fire Department.

Looking at matters more broadly, one of my themes as a liberty activist is that everywhere you look, sectors and services that have been turned over to government have exhibited what professor Tyler Cowen has termed the cost disease. Cost diseases in government services are rarely noticeable right away, but they add up over time until matters start boiling to a head. We have seen this happen with the cost of going to college, with military programs, and with city employee pensions.

What really has happened is that those in the halls of power down at City Hall have sussed out that since most of the healthcare bills in America are paid for by third parties, there has been little or no reason for most Americans to be cost conscious when it comes to anything having to do with health care. Hence a tidal wave of money has rolled into the health care business. The City, by ratcheting up the cost of HFD emergency ambulance services, is merely capturing some of that massive pot of health care dollars and transferring them into the City coffers. In other words, to borrow one from the Lefties, the City is coming dangerously close to falling to the charge of profiting from human misery and putting people before profits profits before people.


  1. It’s true that ambulance transport fees have risen. We do not charge a fee for showing up when called. However, should the patient need hospital transport, he/she will be charged for mileage and supplies used. A simple stubbed toe isn’t nearly as expensive as a full blown cardiac arrest. Whether the increase will stop the abuse of EMS units remains to be seen.

    As you mentioned, the fees go back in to city coffers. They should go back to HFD but that makes too much sense.

  2. From the various articles on the topic, it appears that many assisted living operators call HFD when a patient falls, apparently in an effort to avoid workers comp claims for injuries to employees from lifting patients. As a taxpayer, it is beyond annoying that private entities think HFD is their go to source for this sort of assistance. They need to be hiring their own employees to do those tasks. If the increased fees reduce the number of calls for such events, it’s going to be worth it for all of us. Same thing for repeated calls to move people from their beds to a wheelchair and back. Find another source, or perhaps the City Health Department can provide that type of assistance for a lower cost for people who can’t afford home help.

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