Hospital to replace aging helicopter

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Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s Advanced Life-support and Emergency Rescue Team uses a 17-year-old helicopter that made 496 missions last year. The hospital is looking to purchase a new helicopter this summer. (Brenda Ahearn photos/Daily Inter Lake)

The nonprofit air ambulance serving Northwest Montana is about to be limited to a helicopter that’s grounded months out of each year.

After April 24, helicopter air ambulances won’t be allowed to operate without a terrain awareness and warning system, according to new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Tagen Vine with Kalispell Regional Medical Center said that means as of next week, if the ALERT helicopter is down for repairs when a rescue call comes in, help will have to come from costly private services from outside of the Flathead.

He said to avoid that, the hospital’s affiliated air ambulance needs a new helicopter — which comes with a roughly $4 million price tag.

“If we don’t get a new helicopter, the [ALERT] program could be at risk,” Vine said.

The rule change was announced in 2014.

ALERT, or Advanced Life-support and Emergency Rescue Team, uses a 17-year-old helicopter that meets the upcoming air ambulance regulations. But the helicopters the hospital leases from local industries when the ALERT helicopter is down, don’t meet the new guidelines.

In 2016, the ALERT helicopter couldn’t take missions for 105 days due to maintenance or repairs.

“How long can you fly a 17-year-old helicopter?” Vine said. “Its needs are frequent and expensive.”

Work on the helicopter in 2016 cost $200,000.

Vine said the hospital hopes to purchase a new helicopter this summer. Otherwise, he said the next time ALERT is out of commission, “for-profits will come in and take those flights.”

IN 2016, the State Auditor’s Office received 30 complaints from people who faced bills as high as $100,000 for air ambulance flights. The office has received six so far this year.

“...We’ve never received any complaints about the ALERT helicopter [or] KRMC,” said Kyle Schmauch with the Auditor’s Office. “The ALERT helicopter has been a great resource for people living in Northwest Montana.”

Some health insurers and air ambulance providers have reached reimbursement agreements that shield patients from excessive charges. But there’s often a gap between what the provider charges and what the insurer pays.

A sampling of bills that the state Economic Affairs Interim Committee reviewed revealed that the average cost per flight on an out-of-network air ambulance was more than $53,000.

Vine said ALERT is an in-network provider that works with insurance companies to control billing rates for patients. He said in the last 10 years, the program has operated at a $500,000 to a $750,000 loss.

Montana lawmakers have been trying to regulate the air ambulance industry to buffer the cost for patients who need life-saving flights. Two bills have landed on the governor’s desk that lawmakers say would do that. However, some have said the legislation is preempted by federal law and could be struck down in court if challenged.

THERE ARE 13 licensed air ambulances in Montana. Of those, seven are not-for-profit.

Two Bear Air Rescue is the second nonprofit helicopter based in the Flathead. Jim Pierce, director and chief pilot of Two Bear, said the team offers search and rescue support across the Northwest. He said that doesn’t include acting as an air ambulance.

“Only when a helicopter can’t land, then we’ll go get the patient and get them to an air or ground ambulance,” he said. “But, for the most part, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Last year, ALERT made 496 missions. Vine said he expects rescue missions to increase as the region’s population grows and ages, and as more people visit Montana.

He said the hospital will announce the plan to replace its aging helicopter at the ALERT annual fundraising banquet on April 29.

The banquet brought in $190,000 for the program last year. Vine said the dollars are slated for non-operational costs such as helicopter training or equipment. The money left over has been slated as savings for a new helicopter. Vine said the hospital won’t announce how much money is in that savings until the banquet.

“We believe a hospital-based nonprofit (air ambulance) is the best way to serve folks in our region,” he said.

He said he hopes ALERT can continue that service.

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