Fla. medical helicopter audit authorized by state

Audit may infringe on FAA authority; Medics complain Trauma Hawk is "being used to taxi patients between other counties"

By John Pacenti
The Palm Beach Post, Fla.

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Drama over Trauma Hawk intensified on Monday when the Florida Legislature authorized an audit of the operator of the air-rescue ambulance: the Health Care District of Palm Beach County.

Rep. David Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who has proposed putting Trauma Hawk under the auspices of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, asked for approval from the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee for an operational audit of the health care agency. It was approved unanimously by the eight-member committee.

An audit of the district may not be so simple, however. The Federal Aviation Administration already does an extensive audit in order to certify and license Trauma Hawk.

"A state audit would be an unnecessary expenditure of state resources," said the district's general counsel Nicholas Romanello in a letter Friday to the committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington.

"Finally, and most significantly, the Federal Airline Deregulation Act preempts local and state government regulation of air commerce, including air ambulance operations."

Kerner told the committee no federal law could prohibit a state legislature from auditing a health care district financed by taxpayers.

But the district's CEO, Dr. Ronald Wiewora, said it all depends on the scope of the audit determined by the Florida Auditor General's office and whether it infringes upon the jurisdiction of the FAA. He noted some members of the committee, such as Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, expressed concern about the audit's scope before the body gave unanimous approval.

Romanello, in his letter, said the FAA requires Trauma Hawk to comply with 125 pages of highly detailed technical operational requirements that the state is in no position to evaluate.

Kerner -- echoing concerns of the union representing the EMTs and paramedics who staff Trauma Hawk -- has complained about the air ambulance being used to taxi patients between other counties. The district is negotiating a new contract with Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue to staff Trauma Hawk.

Kerner pulled a proposed amendment that would have transferred the unit -- but not its $6.9 million cost -- from the district to the sheriff's unit. To further appease Kerner, the health care agency decided to end the third-county transfers and to hold a workshop to discuss whether the two-helicopter unit should also assist law enforcement and fire-rescue on other missions.

Neither Kerner nor Sheriff Ric Bradshaw attended the district's workshop last week in which the director of aviation operations expressed grave concerns for the safety of the crew if Trauma Hawk started plucking people out of the ocean or from roofs of high rises on fire.

Kerner, on Monday, said Trauma Hawk remains his chief concern but also said he wants to know why the district's medical director, Dr. Sandra Schwemmer, does work for other emergency agencies in Monroe County. "We have a $400 million agency that is being operated with very little oversight," he said.

Abruzzo also noted as a district board commissioner he fought for an independent audit following a controversial land purchase for the health agency's $25 million nursing home project. The auditor was fired by the district after he was elected to the Legislature, he said.

The Palm Beach Post discovered the district passed on nearly free land in order to purchase a $4 million parcel partly owned by a real estate agent.

"This has been an ongoing struggle with oversight," said Abruzzo, who also criticized Wiewora's salary. The district CEO makes a base salary of $250,000 base and receives another $100,000 in benefits.

Wierwora said he gathered from Monday's proceedings that the audit may be left over business from Abruzzo's time on the district board. "I believe some of those feelings may have something to do with this," he said.

Wiewora also noted Kerner exaggerated the district's budget during Monday's hearing. It is $267 million, not $400 million. He also said Schwemmer, like many in her profession, has long contracted her services to outside agencies, and wears numerous hats for the district.

"Nobody is being overpaid here by any means," he said.

For the latest on health issues affecting you see Palm Beach Post Health Beat at palmbeachhealthbeat.blog.palmbeachpost.com/

Trauma Hawks

The health district operates two coveted Sikorsky S-76, C+ helicopters equipped with two turbo-shaft engines that can travel up to 178 mph. The aircraft is a cousin to the famed military UH-60 Black Hawk chopper. One helicopter is always on duty 24 hours a day to ferry trauma cases to hospitals quickly. A second chopper is available noon to midnight.

©2015 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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