Medevac Madness

April 21, 1991

Playing political football with the state's medical-evacuation helicopter fleet runs the risk of endangering people's lives. Yet that is what Gov. William Donald Schaefer has done. He has no one to blame but himself for this medevac madness.

Mr. Schaefer had a chance earlier this year to put an end to a long-running dispute over providing medevac coverage for residents of the Upper Eastern Shore. The area now has a single-engine jet helicopter stationed at Centreville, but for safety reasons it no longer flies at night or in bad weather.

The ideal solution would be purchasing another twin-engine Dauphin helicopter. The state already has nine of these rapid, large copters stationed in other parts of the state. But a new Dauphin costs $4.4 million, and that is big money in a year when the state is having trouble making ends meet.

Governor Schaefer decided not to ask the General Assembly for new helicopters in the recent legislative session. Instead, he has tried to put the blame on House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell. That is unfair. Under the state's constitution, only the governor can propose new spending items. Mr. Schaefer failed to do so.

In light of the state's budget crunch, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg suggested an interim solution to provide faster medevac service for the Upper Shore: shift a backup Dauphin copter from the Baltimore area to Centreville. That would tide the state over until the recession eases and money is approved for more twin-engine helicopters.

But the governor twice rejected this suggestion. Now he calls it "totally unsatisfactory." Instead, he wants Speaker Mitchell to give his pledge -- nine months in advance -- to a big appropriation for more Dauphin helicopters. There's a catch, though: The governor won't promise to use the new copters for Centreville, in Mr. Mitchell's district, because he says there are so many other areas seeking similar medevac services.

Until now, legislators and the administration have tried to keep politics out of the medical-evacuation discussion. Suddenly, Governor Schaefer has decided to use these helicopters to strong-arm legislators. The issues of faster emergency-medical care and better law enforcement for people seems to have been forgotten.

Both the Upper Shore and Southern Maryland need improved medevac air service. Mr. Steinberg put forth a workable way to bridge the gap. The governor should accept that suggestion and end his political posturing. He should act promptly to help save lives by moving the state's backup Dauphin helicopter to Centreville.

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