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Christine Negroni Headshot

The Not-So-Hilarious World of Helicopter EMS

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So when my son walks into my office and sees me in front of my computer watching an animated short film, I can't expect him to believe me when I say, "Really honey, mommy's working."

Animated stories of the FREEWAY PATROL:

In fact, I was working, watching this You Tube video, sent to me by a gentleman in Texas who found himself in practically this same situation, the latest victim of an epidemic of overuse of medical helicopters.

In the video, a young driver is hit from behind and when she gets out of her car there descends upon her a virtual army of first responders insisting she's seriously injured and in need of medical attention. No amount of eye rolling or shoulder shrugging can change their minds, and so whiplash collar firmly around her neck, and safely secured to a stretcher, the driver is airlifted from the highway to the hospital -- across the street from the accident site.

"What's this going to cost me?" she asks the ambulance attendant.

"Let me ask you this," he answers, "Wouldn't you say your life is worth a mere $17,000?"

As the credits roll, I'm not laughing and my son, Joseph, asks why not. "Because it too true," I tell him, right down to the budget-breaking price tag.

I'm sometimes told that questioning the use of EMS helicopters is on par with encouraging people to play Russian roulette.

But who, faced with an expensive medical procedure they will pay for from their own pocket, doesn't want to know "How much will it cost?" and "Do I really need it?"

There are too many instances where medical helicopters are called for people who are not critically injured or do not have time-sensitive medical need. They will be shocked when the bill arrives. If you've got a few minutes, I urge you to watch this excellent investigative report by Amy Davis of KPRC in Houston exposing the unethical arrangement between EMS provider PHI and a Houston-area fire house.

According to her report, PHI made a deal with a local emergency service provider in 2008 in which PHI would build a helipad and crew lounge, provide a helicopter, pilots, a mechanic and pay $77,000 per month to the Harris County rescue district. In exchange, PHI would have the exclusive right to carry patients and bill for its services.

Davis interviews Jason Boatswain, one of the patients transported by the PHI helicopter under the new agreement. Like a character out of a YouTube video, Boatswain, injured in an auto accident, was loaded into a helicopter for the hospital, even though he was not seriously injured. The bill he received for his short ride by air was $12,400. A ground ambulance would have cost less than $700.

The year prior to the partnership between PHI and the county, the rescue unit moved 12 people by air, according to Davis' report. With the PHI contract in effect, it moved 106.

I wouldn't be rehashing a scandal from 2009 if I hadn't heard of two eerily similar stories, one just a few months ago, also in Texas, more about which later.

The Association of Air Medical Services will hold its 2010 Air Medical Transport Conference in Ft. Lauderdale in a few weeks. Between viewing the product displays, whooping it up at the MASH BASH banquet and enjoying the MedEvac Foundation Charity Golf Classic, let's hope attendees spend some time trying to figure out how to rein in an industry eager to know "Recovery Marketing after an Air Medical Accident" (Tuesday session 9:45) and intent on "increasing flight volume" (Monday session 11:00) whether patients need those flights or not.

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