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Air ambulance service announces closure of base that served Chilton County

Published 4:24pm Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Air Evac has announced the Tuesday closing of its Wetumpka base, taking it out of the mix of air ambulance services covering Chilton County.

Life Saver and North Flight are left as the two helicopter services who will respond to emergencies in Chilton County.

In a press release, Air Evac President Seth Myers said low utilization of the service coupled with low reimbursement rates were major factors in the company’s decision to cease operations at the Wetumpka base, which has been in service since April 2006.

“The reimbursement issue, along with a low demand for patient transports, made it impossible for us to sustain operations at the base,” Myers said in the release. “As a result of the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid, nearly a quarter of the residents we fly in Alabama are self-pay with very little means to pay medical expenses. For those patients covered by Medicaid, they currently reimburse just over $500 for the transport of an adult. The high fixed cost of air ambulance makes it impossible for us to continue to operate with no indication of improvement in sight.

“We’ve been taking a loss with this base for many years. This is an area where air medical services are needed and we wanted to provide this valuable resource for the people in this region.”

The Life Saver helicopter that serves Chilton County operates out of a base in Sylacauga, which is about the same distance from Chilton County as Wetumpka, depending on which part of the county was the site of an emergency.

Both services essentially covered all of Chilton County.

North Flight, which began operations in late 2013, also covers most of the county.

With two or three aircraft serving Chilton County along with many other areas, E-911 Director Dan Wright said the availability of air ambulances has always been an issue that kept emergency responders from relying on the service.

Weather can also play a role in whether a helicopter can respond to an emergency.

Given a flight time of about 20 minutes from Sylacauga or Tuscaloosa, air ambulance transport only becomes practical in cases where a victim is being transported from a rural area away from major roadways, for example, or when responders are forced into a prolonged extrication from a vehicle.

Still, Wright said air ambulance services play an important role, pointing to the 93 calls for helicopters E-911 made in 2013.

“Every transport mechanism we lose is going to affect patient care,” Wright said. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure people get the help they need.”

Air Evac sold memberships to its services, an arrangement where members would pay regular fees but not have to pay if they required air transport.

Julie Heavrin, Air Evac spokeswoman, said members should receive letters in the mail soon, explaining their options, including a prorated refund.

Air Evac operates two other bases in the region at Demopolis and LaGrange, Ga. Both bases are about an 80-mile flight from Elmore County.

“We’ve also seen a decline in commercial reimbursement rates, making Alabama the lowest state in our 15-state service area for reimbursement,” Myers said. “While we regret having to close any base we have in operation, if we are not able to cover the costs to operate the base, we must utilize our resources in other areas that have greater needs for utilization.”

For more information about Air Evac, visit www.lifeteam.net

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