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Voters say OK to funding air ambulance

Keys voters approved a ballot initiative Tuesday to fund a countywide emergency medical helicopter service.

The provision advises the Monroe County Commission to adopt a tax for Keys residents to pay to operate the Sheriff's Office's Sikorsky S-76++. The initiative passed by about 3,000 votes at press time Tuesday night.

It had the support of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office and the county's Fire Rescue Department. It calls for taxing property owners below mile marker 95 about $52 a year, and those north of mile marker 95 about $27 per year.

It is nonbinding, meaning any municipality and special taxing district would still need to individually adopt it.

Opponents of the measure, including the Key Largo Fire and Emergency Medical Services District board and the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Rescue Department, say it would tax Upper Keys residents above mile marker 65 for a service they seldom use.

That area is included in the Upper Keys Health Care Taxing District. The trauma district, as it is known, has had an agreement with Miami-Dade County Air-Rescue and private helicopter services -- originally Baptist Health and now the for-profit LifeNet -- since the 1990s.

Funds collected for the trauma district guarantee that patients will be transported to either Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami or Miami Children's Hospital.

The county has operated trauma helicopter services since 2002, but officials have had a hard time justifying the cost of almost $2 million a year, especially during difficult economic times.

Medical helicopters in the Keys serve two main purposes. They transport trauma patients from accidents to Ryder Trauma Center, and they take patients from Keys hospitals to other hospitals in Miami-Dade better able to deal with the patients' conditions.

Miami-Dade Air Rescue has a "public-use" agreement with Key Largo, meaning its helicopter picks up Upper Keys patients without billing patients or any municipality in the county.

TraumaStar bills patients for cost of service, but county officials said the tax was needed to continue funding operations. Officials had said the helicopter would have had to make between 20 and 40 flights per month to break even. Critics of TraumaStar say the county should discontinue the service and rely on companies like LifeNet.

TraumaStar charges $5,500 plus $80 per mile from the lift-off area to the hospital, said Sheriff's Office chief administrative officer Mike Rice.

LifeNet charges about $10,000 plus $100 mile from lift-off to the hospital. The benefit of using LifeNet, said its director of state affairs Randy Layman, is that the county would not have to pay the close-to $2 million a year to subsidize emergency air services.