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Medevac Overhaul Plan Has First Hearing

Rosalind Helderman

Top Maryland State Police officials told a senate committee today that the state's Medevac helicopter system does not need comprehensive reform and formally opposed separating police fleet's medical mission from its police and homeland security functions.

Dividing the missions is at the core of proposals to overhaul the system that have been advanced by Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel), a longtime military helicopter pilot and Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's). They have suggested that the State Police bid against private operators for the ability to continuing flying medical missions.

The State Police operate the nation's only public air ambulance system, a fleet of 11 helicopters that are also charged with surveillance, air rescue and other homeland security missions. A 12th helicopter crashed in September, killing four people, including a teenage car accident victim who was being flown to a hospital at the time.

Since that time, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of patients flown by helicopter to hospitals, in part due to a change in procedure that requires medics in the field to consult more closely with hospital-based doctors about whether flying is necessary.

Even as the number of flights has dropped, General Assembly has agreed to replace the fleet's aging helicopters, replacing two aircraft a year at a cost of up to $20 million a piece.

Possible changes in the Medevac system promises to be one of the signature issues of the legislative session this year. Lawmakers will likely discuss the system's set-up and whether structural changes could make it safer, as well as whether the state should press forward with the expensive plan to buy new choppers.

At hearing that grew heated at times, Major A. J. McAndrew, commander of the state police aviation command, told the senate's Budget and Taxation Committee that he supports some proposals advanced by Pipkin and Astle -- including a proposal to seek a national accreditation that would require increasing the number of medics flown on helicopters from one to two. He said he also wants to add a second pilot on chopper flights.

But he said new or refurbished helicopters are needed to upgrade an outdated fleet. And he cited examples of times when the state police's ability to use their helicopters for multiple missions have saved lives, including a recent rescue of three motorists stranded on River Road in Montgomery after a water main burst and flooded the roadway.

"It may be a small percentage of our overall missions, but we're there when you need us," he said in an interview.

After the hearing, Pipkin said he believed the number of times the fleet is need for multiple missions at once is minuscule and could not justify the costs of buying new top-of-the-line helicopters capable of carrying out different functions.

He said too that he could not understand pushing ahead with the costly proposal to replace the fleet when the number of missions being flown annually has dropped so dramatically.

"Why are we rushing to go out and buy these multipurpose helicopters at $20 million a clip? It's crazy," he said.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  January 22, 2009; 5:32 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly , Rosalind Helderman  
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It is absolutely imperative that MSP keep the medevac mission. Private air ambulance services are more focused on the bottom line than patient care. While Maryland's system is unique, that is not a valid reason for change.

Posted by: tfp_wnc | January 23, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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