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San Juan, Puerto Rico • Puerto Rico's only active air ambulance company announced Tuesday it has suspended its services, blaming a multimillion-dollar government debt amid a deepening economic crisis that has affected basic services in the U.S. territory.
Aeromed said it has been negotiating with Puerto Rico's government for nearly three years, but that health officials last week rejected a deal to make a minimum payment of $4.4 million, a portion of a much larger overall debt.
"We acknowledge the government's fiscal situation ... but there is no way we can continue to offer our services with inconsistent payments and fees that are unsustainable," said Aeromed director Jose Hernandez.
"This decision is a heavy burden on us because for the past 22 years our mission has been to save lives, but this is also a complex commercial operation and requires income to continue operating."
He noted that the fees paid per flight have remained the same for more than a decade.
A growing number of companies in Puerto Rico are suspending services because of mounting government debt amid a 10-year economic slump.
The government has warned it is running out of money as Puerto Rico seeks to restructure $70 billion in public debt that the governor has said is unpayable.
A Medicaid funding contract between the U.S. government and Puerto Rico requires that the island operate an air ambulance system.
Health Secretary Ana Rius said her department is boosting ambulance services by land, while other medical authorities warned that some lives are being put at risk.
Rius criticized Aeromed for not accepting a government payment offer that she said was made in a serious, responsible and good faith manner.
"It is extremely important that we restart this service," she said, adding that officials are still negotiating with Aeromed and other similar companies. "Puerto Rico is going through an economic crisis like no other. As health secretary, my focus is on protecting the health of all Puerto Ricans."