FAA declines to fine Lee County for improper Medstar billing

Lee County's Medstar helicopter

Lee County's Medstar helicopter

The Federal Aviation Administration is not taking further action against Lee County for improperly billing patients more than $3 million for Medstar air ambulance transports last year, according to an FAA letter.

Medstar did not have federally-mandated certification between February 8 and Aug. 22 2012.

As a result of the improper billing, the county was potentially facing more than $1 million in fines and sanctions imposed by the FAA. The wrongful billing, which was initially denied by public safety directors, ultimately led to the grounding of the 34-year program and the termination of seven pilots and employees.

“The office has concluded its investigation,” according to the Jan. 9 letter. “As a result of the surrender of your Air Carrier Certificate we are closing this matter with no further action.”

The county chose not to complete the necessary requirements to maintain its specialized safety certificate, known as Part 135, when officials shutdown Medstar in August.

“They closed the file,” Assistant County Manager and interim Public Safety Director Holly Schwartz said of the FAA. “This will now restore some sort of normalcy to the operation.”

Schwartz said county officials believed they were permitted to charge patients because the Medstar helicopter was certified under Part 135 of the FAA. But the pilots, despite being trained by the FAA for the certificate, weren’t actually certified to fly on the helicopter or charge patients for flying on it.

Former Deputy Public Safety Director Kim Dickerson, who was asked to resign after Medstar was grounded, said at the time that the violations were “self-reported” to the FAA.

Since the program was shut down, the county has reimbursed $433,590 collected from patients, Medicare and Medicaid. Also, former County Manager Karen Hawes was asked to retire as was John Wilson, the former public safety director.

The county is looking to privatize the air ambulance program and possibly Lee County Emergency Management Services.

County administration sent the commissioners a list of companies that could potentially take over the air ambulance program. Orlando-based Air Methods is first on the list, followed by Med Trans out of Perry, Fla. and Tampa-based Aeromed. The county is currently using Aeromed for its air ambulance services.

The commission is scheduled to discuss the issue at its Feb. 19 meeting.

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