LifeNet air ambulance departs Keys on June 1

LifeNet Key West flies its helicopter ambulance out of the Lower Keys, apparently for good, on June 1.

Air Methods, a Colorado firm that operates the for-profit LifeNet medical transport service, confirmed it “will be closing its base at Lower Keys Medical Center on June 1,” company Corporate Communications Director Christina Ward said in a Monday email.

“Although we have worked hard to remain in the Keys, Monroe County has chosen to use its own resources during the rotation of emergency helicopter dispatch,” Ward said. “Despite our efforts, the Board of County Commissioners decided that adding a third aircraft to the county-run program was in the best interest of Monroe County residents.”

“It’s been an honor serving Monroe County for the past 10 years, and we appreciate the overwhelming support from the community,” Ward said.

Officials with Trauma Star, Monroe County’s public air-ambulance service, are in the final stages of negotiations to acquire a third Sikorsky helicopter to be based in Key West. The helicopter may join the air-transport fleet operated jointly by Monroe County Fire Rescue and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office by midsummer.

Nine additional flight paramedics and nurses were hired earlier this year to staff Trauma Star’s new Lower Keys helicopter. They have training and working with the Trauma Star aircraft based at Florida Keys Marathon International Airport.

None of the new hires work for LifeNet in Key West, county Fire Chief James Callahan said Tuesday. “We extended that offer but no one applied.”

“LifeNet has notified us that they will not be providing services in Key West after 7 a.m. June 1,” said Lower Keys Medical Center spokeswoman Lynn Corbett-Winn. “For the past several months, we have been working closely with Sheriff [Rick] Ramsay on plans to transition medical air transport to the Trauma Star fleet. Those plans have been accelerated to meet the new time line.”

Trauma Star bills out-of-county residents and the insurance policies of local residents for flights, which typically cost less than $30,000, according to staff. But the service does not seek to collect directly from Monroe County residents.

County commissioners and administrators have been critical of LifeNet’s charges — often cited as $60,000 to fly from the Lower Keys to a mainland trauma center — and rejected an appeal by LifeNet to slash its rates for Keys residents in exchange for an annual stipend of $400,000.

Several Keys residents complained to commissioners about LifeNet’s unexpectedly high costs and the firm’s relentless collection efforts. Company executives pledged to change their rates and collection process but commissioners said the offer came too late.

“The closure of our base is not a reflection on the excellent service and hard work of our team,” Ward said. “To the contrary, the LifeNet team has advanced the clinical quality of local air ambulance services. Although this base is closing, we have a number of opportunities for our clinicians, mechanics and pilots at our other locations in Florida and across the U.S. Everyone here at LifeNet has contributed to the safety of the Keys.”

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206\