Monroe County’s air-rescue fleet could wind up with a matched set of previously owned helicopters.
Concerned about the possible loss of the privately run LifeNet helicopter ambulance based in Key West, county staff is considering adding a third aircraft to the Trauma Star program, a service operated jointly by Monroe County Fire Rescue and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s something we’re ready to do if we need it,” County Administrator Roman Gastesi told county commissioners, meeting Wednesday in Marathon. “I don’t think we really want to do it if we don’t have to do it.”
Two factors go into the equation:
▪ LifeNet’s contract with Lower Keys Medical Center expires in March. A renewal is uncertain because of ongoing negotiations over LifeNet’s cost-per-flight charge.
▪ The availability of a 2002 Sikorsky S-76 C-Plus rescue helicopter, “the exact same” as a Trauma Star helicopter purchased for $2.5 million by Monroe County earlier this year. Both the 2002 Sikorskys previously flew for Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
The county now flies a 1981 Sikorsky rescue helicopter purchased in 2006. That helicopter has carried more than 2,400 patients needing emergency transfers from the Keys to mainland trauma centers, but its age means the aircraft requires more maintenance and inspections. The county plans to keep the 1981 helicopter as a backup for the newer Sikorsky.
The county’s 2002 Sikorsky has yet to begin medical flights from the Keys while undergoing a complex Federal Aviation Administration certification that takes months, Commissioner David Rice said. The aircraft could be in operational service within a few weeks, he added.
“What’s driving the decision is that folks in the Lower Keys are not getting treated equally,” Gastesi said of adding the second 2002 Sikorsky. “They’re getting hit with huge bills” for LifeNet flights.
LifeNet frequently is called for Lower Keys emergencies. County Finance Director Tina Boan said Wednesday that she was billed $60,000 for a LifeNet flight after suffering serious injuries in a recent motorcycle accident in Key West.
Trauma Star, based at Florida Keys Marathon International Airport, bills insurers of Monroe County patients but will not seek direct payment from local residents.
Other revenues for the service — budgeted for $3.34 million in the current fiscal year — come from a countywide property-tax assessment, in addition to billing non-resident patients. Monroe County’s air-ambulance operations nearly breaks even, administrators say.
But for Lower Keys emergencies, LifeNet may respond when a Lower Keys patient needs immediate transport or when Trauma Star is unavailable. Air Methods, a Colorado-based company that operates LifeNet, and Lower Keys Medical Center are in talks over costs for air-ambulance service.
“Lower Keys Medical Center continues to work closely with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and Air Methods ... to identify alternatives that will meet the community’s needs for transport services,” Rebecca Ayers, a Lower Keys Medical Center spokeswoman, said in an email.
“Air Methods is a completely separate organization, and the hospital’s primary concern is to ensure patients have access to the transport care they need in a timely matter during an emergency,” Ayers said. “The hospital’s contract with Air Methods is currently scheduled to expire at the end of March.”
Christina Brodsly Ward, Air Methods communications director, said LifeNet wants “to continue to provide our life-saving services for those in need as the county’s second helicopter air ambulance.”
“We believe everyone deserves access to critical care, and LifeNet has been there to answer the call for citizens of Monroe County since 2007,” Brodsly Ward said in an email. “We invest $4 million each year into our local air medical base operations to ensure our team of highly trained clinicians are able to respond to any emergency and provide community members with the best life-saving medical care available.”
“Above all, we are committed to serving the Lower Keys because we are also proud members of this community – our team of flight nurses, flight medics, EMS pilots and [aviation] mechanics have lived here for decades,” she said.
Commissioner George Neugent raised the question about a third helicopter at Wednesday’s meeting. He urged preparing a financial plan that considers medical and pilot staffing and maintenance costs, in addition to the aircraft purchase and depreciation.
“I’m not opposed” to a possible purchase, Neugent said, but he wants the county “to go in with our eyes wide open.”
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206