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Medevac privatization could cost patients thousands

March 14, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- Several Washington County Hospital patients have been transferred to other hospitals by helicopter thinking it was a free service provided by Maryland State Police, only to later get a bill for $8,000 or $9,000, Del. John P. Donoghue said.

That is the type of sticker shock Donoghue says patients will receive if state lawmakers are successful in their push to privatize the state's medevac services.

Bills sponsored by state Sens. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, and E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline/Cecil/Kent/Queen Anne's, would separate Maryland'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. State money saved from the change would go to support EMS ground operations.

However, lawmakers representing Washington County in the Maryland General Assembly and local fire and rescue personnel say the state system is the finest in the nation and should remain intact.

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"I'm going to do everything I can to kill those bills," said Donoghue, D-Washington. "I truly believe these private companies see a big moneymaker for themselves."

Donoghue said he has had to fight companies who billed several Washington County patients for helicopter services they did not know they would have to pay for. The Maryland State Police medevac program is funded in part through Maryland state driver's license fees.

Maryland State Police Maj. Greg Shipley said he could not provide information about the cost of medevac flights. Dan Nakles, a spokesman for STAT MedEvac - a medevac service with a base at Hagerstown Regional Airport - also said he could not provide specific information about the cost to its patients.

Nakles said bills for the interhospital transports his company provides are based on a number of factors, including the patient's insurance, the distance they are traveling by helicopter and the nature of the flight.

The budget for Maryland State Police aviation for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 will be $24 million, Shipley said. Data on the amount spent in Washington County was not available.

In 2008, there were 79 medevac calls to incidents reported in Washington County, Shipley said. Maryland State Police helicopters also completed three interhospital transports, 11 law enforcement missions and 11 search-and-rescue missions in Washington County.

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Del. Christopher B. Shank said he has taken a flight in a Maryland State Police medevac helicopter to observe its operation, and is against any effort to privatize the current state-run system.

"We have a world-class trauma system," said Shank, R-Washington. "It's interconnected with our fire and rescue, aviation command and trauma centers. Any attempt to privatize it and dismantle any component to that system would have a devastating impact on public safety."

Although Shank is a fiscal conservative, he said there are some areas where the public's safety outweighs government expense.

"My sense is that any time you have the profit motive interfere with decisions that are life and death, you run the risk of negatively impacting public safety," Shank said.

A group of Washington County first responders, including Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association President Glenn Fishack, was in Annapolis last week to testify against the bills aimed at privatizing the state's medevac system.

"I think the medevac program in place now is essential to patient care in the state of Maryland," said Oley Griffith, chief of First Hose Co. of Boonsboro.

Griffith said the Maryland State Police medevac helicopters are used quite a bit by his station, especially in southern Washington County, where critical patients often cannot chance a long ride to the nearest hospital.

"I think you would have to look at it ... when it comes to patient care, what's the best way to get that patient to the nearest hospital?" he said. "Can you put a price tag on a human life?"

However, Shank said local first responders should not worry because he believes any attempt to privatize the Maryland State Police service is dead.

Stopping the push to privatize also will help residents who have been paying license fees for years as a type of insurance policy guaranteeing them free medevac transport in case they need it, Shank said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson said he also is against privatizing the services and believes the bills will be voted down.

"We have a premier system, and it works," said Munson, R-Washington. "There is little reason to break it."

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said he does not want to completely privatize the state-run medevac program, but believes a type of public and private system might work well. He said it's possible private companies could provide scheduled services, and Maryland State Police could continue to provide emergency medevac and police services.

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