Air Evac Lifeteam operates air ambulances based in Cordele and Valdosta. (Special photo)
ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 contains a surprising health care item _ $13 million to fund air ambulance service in 14 southwest Georgia counties.
If the funding is approved by the General Assembly, it will the first time the state has ever operated an ambulance service — either by air or by ground. In Georgia, trauma transport typically is handled by counties, hospitals or private emergency medical services (EMS) companies. Currently, all air ambulance service in the state is provided by private carriers.
Col. Mark McDonough, Department of Public Safety commissioner, told GHN there are no private air ambulance services based within the 14 counties that make up the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission (SWGRC).
That void, he explained, is why the state has proposed enlisting the Georgia State Patrol to operate two helicopters in the region, providing both ambulance and law enforcement services. The aircraft would be based in Camilla.
Helicopters, with their ability to land and take off in much tighter spaces than fixed-wing airplanes, have been used as air ambulances for more than 60 years.
Col. McDonough noted there were 615 calls for trauma transport in 10 of the 14 southwest counties during 2013, and four of the calls were for air transport from the scene of the injuries. People severely injured are flown to Atlanta, Macon, Savannah or Jacksonville, Fla., to reach hospitals with a level-1 trauma center.
When it comes to saving lives, Colonel McDonough said, every minute counts. The southwest Georgia region, home to 300,000 people, is served by privately owned air ambulances based in Valdosta and Cordele, but those cities are more than 40 miles away from most of the region’s 14 counties.
Based on the distance to level-1 trauma centers and the speed of the helicopters, Colonel McDonough said, people injured in the region will have a greater chance of survival with helicopter service based in Camilla, which is within 40 miles of all 14 counties.
“We’re not getting into the business of air ambulance service,” the colonel said. “The state is not trying to get into competition with private carriers.”
The state’s air ambulance service, he added, will be confined to the southwest counties. The region is bordered on the west by Alabama, on the south by Florida, on the north by Terrell and Lee counties and on the east by Colquitt and Worth counties. (See map at http://www.swgrc.org/about-the-rc/)
Gov. Deal’s budget proposes spending $10.5 million in bond funding to purchase a new helicopter, which would be outfitted with equipment for law enforcement and ambulance functions, and retrofit an existing law enforcement helicopter for ambulance duty.
The budget also includes $2.2 million, allocated annually, to hire five pilots and five tactical flight officers. The latter would serve as State Patrol officers and paramedics. The annual funding also covers administrative costs as well as maintenance and fuel for the aircraft. Fiscal 2015 begins July 1.
In addition, the SWGRC will provide funding to hire five flight nurses and build a hangar for the helicopters at Camilla-Mitchell County Airport.
SWGRC Executive Director Robert McDaniel said the commission will be responsible for finding $800,000 to build the hangar and another $350,000 a year to pay for the nurses.
McDonough said the State Patrol will not charge trauma victims for air transport. But the SWGRC will, to help defray the cost of the nurses’ $70,000 annual salaries.
“My feeling is we would bill exactly like the [private companies] do,” McDaniel said.
Besides transporting people from injury scenes to hospitals, McDaniel said, the air ambulances will probably provide hospital-to-hospital transport in some cases. That would be when injured patients arrive by ground ambulance at a hospital in the region and then must be transferred to a level-1 trauma center.
The request to create the air ambulance service did not come from his commission, McDaniel said, and as far as he knows none of the individual county commissions asked for it.
“On paper, it’s obvious if you have one more player in the life flight service, so that a patient makes it to the hospital before dying, that’s a great thing,” McDaniel said.
In addition, he said, the SWGRC is “always very grateful when the state is able to send funds to our region for tourism and economic development to create jobs. These will be high-end jobs.”
State Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) said Wednesday that he is not sure where the proposal originated. “Certainly it was at a higher pay grade than mine,’’ he said. “Someone looked at the life flight services maps for the state and saw Southwest Georgia was without service. It was not a request from us [in the region], but we are certainly happy the service is being offered.”
Powell, chair of the Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee, added that he is grateful that Gov. Deal “came up with this innovative approach to address this need.”
Air Evac Lifeteam operates air ambulances based in Cordele and Valdosta.
“We realize the need is there,” said Air Evac Lifeteam President Seth Myers, referring to southwest Georgia. “We’ve looked at this area ourselves and believe there is a need for air medical services. But under current state and federal reimbursement rates, we are unable to find a way to make it economically viable.”
Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an organization of rural hospitals in Georgia, said that patients’ access to care is limited by a lack of a Level 1 trauma center in the region.
“Travel time by vehicle could easily take two hours-plus,’’ Lewis said. The air ambulance service would be “a tremendous benefit’’ to the southwest Georgia region, he added.
Charles Craig is with Georgia Health News.