Competing Ohio medical helicopters raise concerns

By Suzanne Hoholik
The Columbus Dispatch

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — A new medical-helicopter company will respond to serious trauma injuries in the Chillicothe area and fly patients to area hospitals starting Monday.

Life Air, based in Portsmouth, set up a helicopter base on Rt. 23 across the road from Adena Medical Center.

Some critics wonder whether the decision is driven by medical necessity or profit.

"If it's the latter, this is exactly the kind of problem we're having right now in trying to reduce health-care costs," said Robert J. Caswell, associate professor emeritus at Ohio State University's College of Public Health. "It's not the sort of service where you'd expect competition to bring down price.

"It's not like the two helicopters are going to zoom up to a patient and haggle."

This is the first medical helicopter in Ohio for the company, which also operates Life Ambulance, a ground ambulance business. Adding a helicopter base puts Life Air in competition with MedFlight of Ohio. The Columbus company has eight bases across the state, including three in southern Ohio.

"We believe the marketplace will shake things out on who's providing the best service," said Dr. Wayne Wheeler, medical director of Life Air. "We believe there's a niche down here for us, or else we wouldn't be making this investment."

There are 55 medical helicopters -- including 16 based in Pennsylvania -- licensed to operate in Ohio.

"Anytime you have duplication of this very expensive and safety-minded program like that, it's a concern," said Rod Crane, MedFlight president. He said MedFlight probably will receive fewer calls from the Chillicothe area but "we don't feel it will be significant."

Wheeler said taking a trauma patient from Portsmouth to Columbus, for example, can cost $8,000 to $10,000. Which hospital they land at depends on the individual, his or her physician and the doctor who will accept them there.

Unlike most air ambulance companies in Ohio that have financial and governing relationships with hospitals, Life Air is a private, for-profit company.

Air ambulances are a growing business and, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are about 840 emergency medical helicopters across the country.

Who is called is up to emergency medical workers and hospitals.

Both MedFlight and Life Air officials have lobbied the groups in the Chillicothe area to call them first, but it might come down to availability.

"We haven't made a decision on who we'd call first," Chillicothe Fire Chief Bruce Vaughan said.

He said his department calls for medical helicopters about eight to 10 times a year and that the wait is about 20 to 25 minutes.

Safety is a big concern for medical helicopters nationwide. Nine crashes during 2007 and 2008 killed 35 people, including six patients.

On Wednesday, three crew members of a medical helicopter in South Carolina were killed in a crash.

Copyright 2009 The Columbus Dispatch
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