Lee County picks private company to run air ambulance service

Lee County's Medstar helicopter

Lee County's Medstar helicopter

Air Methods

Base fee: $13,504

Per mile: $135

Medstar, Lee County’s former air ambulance program

Base fee: $8,500

Per mile: $90

Collier County Medflight

Base fee: $5,900

Per mile $110

Video from NBC-2

Lee County’s air ambulance program is going private.

Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to allow county staff to negotiate a deal with Air Methods, a Colorado-based air medical transport company. Air Methods will be replace the county-run Medstar, which was shutdown last August due to poor management, lack of safety regulations and inappropriate billing.

With little discussion of the issue, commissioners commended staff for efficiently finding a solution to the problems left in the wake of the Medstar fallout.

“I think this represents a new day in the county’s history and direction,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “I’m very proud of the work you have done.”

Air Methods was one of three companies that responded to the county’s request for proposals, which was sent out in December. After meeting with the commissioners and researching the companies, county staff ranked Air Methods first, followed by Atlanta-based Med-Trans and Tampa-based Aeromed.

Air Methods will charge a base fee of $13,504 to respond to a call and $135 per mile, which is more than Medstar’s $8,500 base rate and $90 per mile. Air Methods also charges significantly more than the Collier County’s Medflight program, which charges a base fee of $5,900 and $110 per mile. Collier has used Medflight for about 30 years and has maintained those rates since 2008, Collier County EMS Chief Walter Kopka said.

Med-Trans, which was ranked second on the county’s list, would have charged patients between $18,000 and $20,000, including mileage fees, according to county documents. Aeromed, which has been providing air ambulance services in Lee County since Medstar was shuttered, called for a $13,500 base fee and $117 per mile.

In all of the programs, patients are billed for services, but most insurance companies cover the cost, Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said. If the county had kept its Medstar program, the rates could have increased and unpaid balances would fall on the taxpayers because it was a county-based program, Pendergrass said.

“They handle everything now,” Pendergrass said of Air Methods. “The county’s out of it.”

Although Air Methods will be more expensive for patients, privatizing air ambulance services will save the county about $2 million, Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz said.

In addition to taking over billing, Air Methods will also provide their own helicopters. Lee’s two county-owned helicopters will be sold, and Air Methods will lease the former Medstar hanger at Page Field — moves that are expected to save the county millions.

Air Methods will also employ the county’s current paramedics, but they will remain on the county’s payroll. Those four flight paramedics add up to $363,068 annually for the county.

“Any employees or staff we can retain for this function is great,” Commissioner Larry Kiker said. “I’m glad to get the hole filled in there and get back in business.”

The contract with Air Methods will be for one year, but will have a renewal clause for four additional one-year periods, according to county documents.

Staff said they expect to have the contract negotiated with Air Methods within the next six weeks.

Commissioners plan to discuss the future of the county’s ground ambulance program in March. They are also considering entering into a similar partnership for those services.

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