Third air-rescue helicopter may be sought if Lower Keys talks fail

Negotiations over keeping a privately operated air ambulance in the Lower Keys seem to have hit a rough patch, leaving Monroe County officials looking more seriously at buying a third Trauma Star helicopter.

“Right now, it doesn’t look promising” for Lower Keys Medical Center’s contract negotiations with Air Methods, a Colorado company that operates the LifeNet helicopter ambulance based in Key West, county Fire Chief James Callahan told Monroe County commissioners on Wednesday.

LifeNet has worked in the Lower Keys since 2007 but the company’s contract with the Lower Keys hospital expires March 1.

Local officials have pressured the private company to reduce its charges for flying patients to mainland trauma centers, now often cited as $50,000 to $60,000 per trip. Callahan indicated that in exchange for lower rates, LifeNet operators reportedly seek an annual subsidy of several hundred thousand dollars.

The county-operated Trauma Star operation does not require Monroe County residents to pay its for air-rescue flights outside of available insurance coverage.

Commissioner David Rice said the county should be ready to provide helicopter-ambulance service to the Lower Keys if LifeNet departs.

“I’m getting quite concerned,” Rice said. “I don’t want to see LifeNet make the decision to leave prior to our ability to step in.... That may make the difference in the life of a patient.”

Monroe County this year acquired a refurbished 2002 Sikorsky S-76 C-Plus rescue helicopter at a cost of $2.5 million to replace its 1981 Trauma Star aircraft, which is becoming increasingly costly to operate. A sister aircraft to the 2002 Sikorsky is available. The county is keeping its 1981 helicopter as a backup.

Commissioners asked county staff to prepare a more detailed cost proposal on buying and operating a third helicopter.

In other issues at Wednesday’s meeting in Key Largo:

▪ A Big Pine Key building used by Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Florida Keys as its ReStore fundraising business must be emptied by Jan. 19, commissioners confirmed.

The two-story, 12,000-square-foot building owned by Monroe County suffers from numerous structural problems, possibly making it unsalvagable.

Habitat officials will be allowed to move items from the building and store them on vacant land at the site for six months while the non-profit group explores whether repairs can be made to the aging building. County engineers are dubious about whether the building can be made safe.

▪ Heard officers of the Tavernier Community Association and Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowners Associations appeal for more county action to prevent littering.

“Clearly the county has not visited this issue in a long time and it’s overdue,” TCA President Richard Barreto said. “There is more housing, more development and more visitors.... This problem affects our fragile environment and is growing worse.”

▪ Declared Jan. 15 to 21, 2017, as Manny Madruga Week in Monroe County to honor the longtime Keys prosecutor who died suddenly Nov. 17.

State Attorney Catherine Vogel accepted the honor on behalf of the Madruga family. “It was not only an honor to work with him but I really loved him,” she said.

Commissioner Danny Kolhage, former clerk of the court, said the State Attorney’s Office has seen “many changes through the years. Through that, Manny was the anchor. He kept us on the right track and we will all miss him dearly.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206