Privatized medevac unlikely

Legislative panel recommends state police retain control, replace aging copters

March 10, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,

Attempts to overhaul and possibly privatize the state's emergency medical system appear likely to fail this year after a legislative panel's full-throated endorsement of continued state police control of Maryland's medical helicopter program.

A 14-member House of Delegates study panel voted unanimously yesterday to recommend that state police maintain operation of the medevac fleet and that the aging helicopters be replaced at a pace faster than that proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The panel called for additional legislative scrutiny of the state EMS system. It also said the medevac system should pursue safety upgrades to its helicopters and higher levels of certification from the federal government and an independent accreditation agency.

Dr. Robert R. Bass, executive director of the state-administered EMS network, said he was "very pleased" that the panel concluded that the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems "should continue in our present configuration with improvements."

Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., the St. Mary's County Democrat who chaired the study group, said the panel's recommendations amount to a "strong, cohesive House position," and he dismissed the chances for a reform bill sponsored by Sens. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat, and E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "I doubt we'll even see it," Bohanan said of their bill.

The EMS system, and in particular the police-operated helicopter program, have come under increased scrutiny since the fatal crash of a medevac helicopter in September, which followed a legislative audit criticizing the state police's fiscal management and helicopter fleet maintenance.

In light of that crash and other fatal accidents around the country, state medical officials have adopted new guidelines that have sharply decreased the number of helicopter flights. They are also considering reducing the number of medevac bases around the state from the current eight, which could shrink the size of the fleet.

In a last-minute addition, the panel added language to its report recommending that police use no more than seven bases and that the helicopter fleet eventually be reduced from 12 to at most 10 aircraft.

Bohanan said the panel's study "validates that the system is good ... and we're ready to make the investment for the next decades."

Astle and Pipkin's proposal, scheduled for a Senate hearing tomorrow, would require the governor to create a Cabinet-level department to oversee emergency services and consider allowing a private company to run the transport fleet.

Astle, a former medevac pilot, vowed a continued push for reform and questioned the need for the state to proceed with a costly helicopter replacement plan. "We're not giving up, no way," he said.

The House panel is recommending spending $60 million next year to purchase three new helicopters. O'Malley has asked for $40 million in his capital budget request. Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and panel member, said that replacing the 12-aircraft fleet quickly would save on maintenance because there would be fewer model versions among the new fleet.

Guzzone led a subcommittee that studied a privatization proposal from a Colorado-based company and concluded that cost-savings would be negligible and that introducing a profit motive could limit service to less populated parts of the state.

But one member of the House work group dissented from the panel's recommendations. "I think it's a missed opportunity to really take a rational and comprehensive look" at the medevac system, said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and former emergency room physician who has been critical of the state's EMS system. Morhaim abstained from yesterday's vote.

In what he called a "minority report," Morhaim argued that "the purchase of new helicopters should be delayed one year until a full and proper analysis is done."

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