News of Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming, from the Ranger's award winning journalists.
Rival air ambulances vow to serve patients first
Apr 22, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer
A new air ambulance service company in Fremont County is honoring insurance policies from patients signed up with Casper-based competitor Wyoming LifeFlight.
"We decided to go ahead and honor" the subscription insurance policies indefinitely, said Matt Stein, program director of Classic Lifeguard operating at the Riverton Regional Airport.
Classic Lifeguard does not have any plans to discontinue honoring the policies for patients enlisted with Wyoming LifeFlight, Stein said.
"There has been no time limit set on that at this time," he said.
Stein's comments came during discussions in Lander this month with county commissioners and other air ambulance providers serving the area.
Fremont County Ambulance director Lauri Wempen organized the meeting with commissioners after voicing concerns about the influx of air medical transportation providers and handling dispatch calls to them for service.
Commissioners provided input on the matter after hearing concerns.
"I think the best patient care we can provide ... we need," commissioner Dennis Christensen said. "I think it's something that can be worked out with the three companies and come to us for our blessing."
Representatives of the air ambulance firms -- including Guardian Flight, of Rock Springs, that is potentially moving to Fremont County -- said patient care is their priority.
"Our concern is first and foremost for the citizens and for the patients," Stein said. "From our base in Riverton we can reach any point in Fremont County faster than any other (air ambulance)."
"Our No. 1 concern is going to be the community," said Mark Miller, Wyoming LifeFlight chief flight nurse. "We don't want to be us against you or us against them. We want to be a team."
Wyoming LifeFlight has developed a client base in the county through its subscription policies, Miller said.
"We've pushed our LifeFlight membership for years," he said. "Maybe there's a way we can kind of come up with a Wyoming membership."
The issue for the companies goes beyond responding to a car crash or injured hiker in a remote area of the county.
The air ambulance companies also use their services to transport patients from in-county hospitals to other facilities.
Wempen estimated that nearly all requests for air ambulances involve transporting patients between hospitals and only a small number of calls are for 911 services.
Riverton Regional Hospital CEO Chris Smolik told commissioners that his institution, along with the Lander facility, both of which fall under the LifePoint Hospitals umbrella, have close relationships with Casper medical providers.
"The Casper LifeFlight program has served our communities for quite some time ... but they've been the only, I guess you would say, the only game in town until March 1," Smolik said.
He expressed concern about the dilution of business because of more companies serving the area.
"They need volume from both of our hospitals" to be viable, he said.
By picking one company over another, "That would reduce a substantial amount of volume for the Casper LifeFlight program," Smolik said.
If LifeFlight pulls out of the area and the other company closes, "we could then have nothing other than ground transport for our patients in the short term until we had another company in place," he said.
"Right now we have something that's definite" with LifeFlight, Smolik said.
Commission chairman Doug Thompson questioned Smolik about decisions concerning air transport.
"If a patient is in a hospital, and they need transport ... who makes that decision?" he asked.
"The physician," Smolik said, adding the doctor will call Wyoming Medical Center in Casper to request an air ambulance.
"That kind of locks you into a provider if your next level of care is in Casper," Thompson said.
Smolik said the issue is which company the hospital should call first.
"The reality is all three have a business to run," he said, adding the challenge they face is "who has the deepest pockets to wait it all out."
Thompson concurred with Smolik's conclusions.
"That is of concern to me: Because of the competition, no one can make it, and we have no one" serving the county, he said.
Another concern is the cost of service to patients, Smolik said.
"I want something more than a flight service," he said. "There needs to be an insurance program established for our community."
Smolik said air transports can cost upward of $40,000 and $50,000, prompting the need for an air ambulance insurance program for all providers so patients "aren't punished ... financially."
Carl Freeman, the 911 dispatch system manager for the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, told commissioners his concern is with emergency calls.
"The 911 center is out of the business when we talk hospital-to-hospital transfers," Freeman said.
His task is getting the fastest helicopter to the scene of an emergency.
"Right now we only have one choice: It would be my job to dispatch the closest ... and that would be in Riverton," he said.
Wempen agreed with the rationale behind dispatching an air ambulance to an emergency scene.
"Carl and I are always going with the one that is closest," she said.