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Firefighters oppose private 'copter service

March 11, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- Proposed legislation that would privatize Maryland State Police's medical aviation services has local emergency responders concerned that patients will be forced to pay for expensive helicopter transportation.

Clarence Webber, a volunteer at Western Enterprise Fire Co. in Hagerstown, said a patient from Hancock who is flown to a hospital in Baltimore could be charged about $15,000 for a service that is now funded through Maryland state driver's license fees.

Webber was among local volunteers who went to Annapolis to testify Wednesday against legislation that would separate the state's police helicopter fleet into separate medical and law-enforcement operations and allow Gov. Martin O'Malley to consider bids from private companies to provide medevac services.

No action was taken Wednesday on several bills related to the helicopter system that were heard in the Senate's Finance Committee.

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Glenn Fishack, president of Washington County Fire and Rescue Services, said local representatives didn't get a chance to testify because of a two-hour time limit on discussion, but they offered their opinions in writing.

"Why change a system that works?" Fishack asked.

Washington County Director of Public Works Joseph Kroboth III, a member of The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway, said in a telephone interview that Maryland's aviation system is "a model" for other states and the fire company opposes the push to change the system.

About 11,000 patients are transported by medical helicopters each year in the state, according to Maryland State Police, who were unable to provide the number of flights in Washington County by deadline Wednesday.

The Maryland State Police Aviation Command takes about 5,000 patients each year to trauma centers in Maryland. Private medical helicopter companies complete about 6,000 missions between hospitals annually.

Washington County Hospital uses the private company STAT MedEvac for interhospital transfers, spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said.

Kroboth said he was concerned that private companies would be more concerned with the bottom line than with patient care.

"If it is privatized, the decision for deployment, the base location for the services and whether or not to even provide the services or not will be based on whether or not the area is profitable," Kroboth said.

He said it's likely a private business would seek out areas where they would receive more calls for service. Rural areas like Washington County could receive less service, he said.

"Areas where the demand for services is low may not get the same level of services as they're getting today," Kroboth said.

State Sens. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, and E.J. Pipkin, R-CarolineCecilKentQueen Anne's, submitted the proposed legislation, under which any money saved would go to support EMS ground operations. Pipkin said his intent was to improve the state-run medevac system, which he said was plagued by maintenance, vacancy and overtime issues.

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