Maryland Legislative Panel Calls for Cuts in Medevac Copters, Bases

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Maryland House of Delegates work group recommended yesterday that the state-run medevac program close at least one of its eight bases and reduce its fleet of helicopters to fewer than 10, in addition to increasing many of its safety and flight standards to meet or exceed those of commercial medevac companies.

The Maryland State Police medevac service is already operating fewer helicopters and bases than it did a year ago. State police lost one of 12 helicopters in a fatal crash in Prince George's County in September. Soon after the accident, they stopped staffing a base in Montgomery County and dispersed crew members to the seven other bases, said Major A.J. McAndrew, commander of the state police aviation unit.

"Even before the crash, it was hard to keep that base open" because so many of the helicopters were grounded for maintenance, McAndrew said. He referred questions about future base numbers to the state agency that oversees emergency medical response.

Robert R. Bass, the executive director of that independent state agency, said base closure decisions can be made only after state officials fully evaluate flight requests, which are expected to increase again this summer. Bass said it is important to have enough helicopters and crew members to meet peak demand, not just the average.

The recommendations, which were voted on yesterday afternoon and will be passed along to three House committees today, also call for state police to retrofit their helicopters with safety features, enhance flight standards to meet those of commercial medevac companies, add a second pilot to each flight and begin purchasing a new fleet of helicopters. In addition, the recommendations call for establishing a joint legislative oversight committee to continue the work group's efforts.

The panel stopped short of calling for a company to take over medevac operations, as has been proposed by some lawmakers. That proposal would not halt state police use of helicopters for law enforcement and other missions.

The work group members found "no compelling interest" to privatize medevac services, said Del. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard County), a group member.

"In the end, I think we validated that the system is good. It's not broken," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's), the group's chairman.

The work group recommended that the program seek accreditation from a national trade organization if money is available in the fiscal 2011 budget. That would require state police to add a second medical provider to medical flights, at a cost of about $2.26 million a year.

The group has recommended further evaluating triage procedures to reduce the number of unnecessary flights. That effort is strongly supported by Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), an emergency room doctor and work group member who has questioned spending millions of dollars on new helicopters and other equipment while other health initiatives go unfunded.

"For a long time, we have been flying too many patients," Morhaim said. "There are very simple protocol changes that can reduce that number."

Before service was halted at the Montgomery base last year, staff members there had experienced a steady decline in the number of medevac requests and flights, especially after new triage procedures restricted the types of low-trauma patients to be transported.

The number of medevac flights statewide decreased significantly after the September crash as triage protocol was again changed, this time to require that ground responders conduct a short consultation with a trauma doctor before flying patients with less-serious injuries.

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