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Editorial: Lee must fix medical flight issues

Sep. 10, 2012

If you go

What: Board of County Commissioners meeting
When: 9:30 a.m. today
Where: County commissioners chambers, 2120 Main Street, Fort Myers
TV: LeeTV, channel 97


Taxpayers, local and federal officials deserve an answer as to why Lee County government employees violated strict federal rules about flying an emergency medical helicopter that may have endangered pilots and patients.

Officials purposely kept critical pilot certification information from their bosses and from the FAA. If that was not bad enough, they then tried to hide behind this egregious lack of judgment by saying the grounding of its medical helicopters was to seek certification they did not need. It is a series of untruths, if not flat out lies.

This action has put the county in danger of losing millions of taxpayer dollars. Lee commissioners need to light a fire under the administration to find out the truth.

With so many questions they should seek outside experts to investigate. Violating a public trust this big calls for immediate action by the commissioners, who meet today to discuss it.

The central figures in this alarming drama are the Medstar’s former directors of flight operations Rick O’Neal and Rob Fulton, the former pilots, including Arnold McAllister, who talked with The News-Press; Lee County Public Safety Director John Wilson, public safety deputy director Kim Dickerson, and the helicopter, the Bell 430.

Wilson and Dickerson apparently knew its newest medical helicopter, the Bell 430, was being piloted by individuals who were licensed to fly but did not have the proper credentials to bill the patients they were flying. To complete the deception, the county billed those patients $3 million for the flights. What has yet to be rectified is if the county will notify the patients and insurance companies that they do not need to pay these bills.

At the end of 2010, the FAA sent the county four warning notices for violating eight federal regulations in its pilot training program, record-keeping and maintenance, according to federal documents. County officials claim they never received the warning notices. We have a hard time believing the county’s record keeping is this poor they are losing important federal documents.

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What led to the FAA stripping a pilot’s certification needed to bill for flights was that Fulton was conducting training without the proper credentials, according to records. The expired credential was reported to the FAA by former pilot McAllister after Fulton refused to do it. McAllister, who was appointed to file the reports, was “forbidden” to have any contact with the FAA and was placed on leave.

There also is the matter of the county giving free flights to victims for a short period, totaling $430,000.

It is difficult to understand what county officials were thinking to place their pilots and human lives in jeopardy. It is difficult to understand why they purposely kept information from federal and local officials.

County commissioners need to review all the facts and hear from those involved. They need to question County Manager Karen Hawes today on what she knew, what she plans to do with those who did know and how she is going to fix it.

If the facts clearly show any county official or employee participated in illegal or unethical activities, then the appropriate discipline must result, up to and including firings.

Currently, a valuable medical emergency helicopter sits on the ground and the county relies on a private service. Currently, the pilots work on the ground as emergency responders, denied the right to fly because they do not have the proper training in order to bill patients.

Not only does the county have an image problem but it may soon face a financial one as well should those patients who flew under the knowledge that the people treating them were properly credentialed decide to file lawsuits.

The appearance of any scandal wipes out public trust in government officials. County officials must act quickly and decisively to fix the problem.

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