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Privatization may be part of Medstar future

Consultant hired to draw a blueprint; clerk will oversee investigation.

Sep. 14, 2012
The Medstar building at Page Field in Fort Myers.
The Medstar building at Page Field in Fort Myers. / file photo
Charlie Green, Lee County Clerk of Court.

If you go

• What: County commission meeting
• When: 9:30 a.m. Tuesday
• Where: 2120 Main St. Fort Myers


Lee County officials started spending money Friday to try to fix its Medstar fiasco.

County Manager Karen Hawes contracted former EMS deputy director and current Lee Memorial Health System board member Chris Hansen, according to a statement from Hawes.

County administration also wants to hire Global Aviation Solutions. The Miami-based company will help the county rehab the troubled program or bring in a private company to perform medical flights.

Hawes and Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz did not return calls and emails for comment.

The dollar amount county officials agreed to pay Hansen remains unknown. He said the county contracted him as a consultant through his wife’s public relations company, but directed questions about the price of that contract to county management.

Hansen, who said he oversaw the expansion of the county’s medical flight program during his tenure in EMS, will help the county communicate with Federal Aviation Administration officials.

The agency launched an investigation after county officials confessed they improperly billed patients for $3 million in medical flights.

“If I can come in and help county management do that, it’s my privilege,” Hansen said.

Global Aviation Solutions’ phone number was disconnected Friday. The amount of money county officials plan to give that company could not be ascertained, because Hawes and Schwartz did not return calls and emails after releasing the statement at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

According to the company’s website, “if you own or plan to purchase a private jet, we can maintain your aircraft properly, handle all the administrative details, and even help to offset your cost of ownership.”

Bringing in an outside company to perform medical flights is one option that will be presented to the county commission in November, Hawes told commissioners Tuesday.

That option comes after the county performed more than $400,000 in free flights because it failed to meet federal safety standards.

Officials will also have to cancel the $3 million in billings and return $320,000 collected in violation of federal rules.

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It also comes after the county spent upward of $5 million in 2010 to build a new headquarters for Medstar and buy a helicopter.

Commissioner Frank Mann said privatizing medical flights could save the county money.

“This is the ideal time to take a long, hard look at the way we’ve done things,” Mann said.“If we let them have our place for free, at least I’m not paying for insurance and pilots and annual maintenance.”

In his tenure as EMS deputy director, Hansen said he never advocated for privatization. Rather, he oversaw the program’s transition to an air carrier service that could bill for medical flights.

“Mine was more growth expansion and enhancement of the program,” he said. “I’ve built programs before and they’re just tapping me for my experience.”

As for the quest for answers, Clerk of Court Charlie Green said he will have far-reaching authority.

Green said Commissioner John Manning told him Green’s auditors will receive any information they need and county officials will not seek to limit its scope.

“We will be getting information about all kinds of things that relate to how did this come about,” Green said. “I’m not going to use the term ‘who’s to blame,’ but what caused this situation.”

The commission will hear from Green at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, according to Hawes’ statement.

Green said his audit will take about three to four months. It will not be completed before county management asks the commission to consider privatizing emergency medical flights in November.

When Public Safety Director John Wilson and EMS Chief Kim Dickerson suspended the program last month, they claimed the measure was part of an effort to seek a voluntary accreditation.

Bills a mistake

Under mounting scrutiny, Hawes admitted she knew the county failed to meet federal safety regulations and was prohibited from billing in the run-up to the programs suspension.

But she denied knowing the county was billing despite the federal mandates. She told commissioners the $3 million in erroneous bills was a mistake.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office is also investigating claims the Medstar’s director of maintenance stole more than $600 worth of helicopter fuel.

On Thursday, Wilson signed an affidavit to prosecute in the alleged theft. Whether or not any charges will be filed depends on the outcome of the sheriff’s investigation and prosecutors.

Director of Maintenance Greg Schiegner was placed on administrative leave earlier this week pending the outcome of that investigation. County management initially selected him to head up the county’s contact with FAA inspectors who are investigating the improper billings.

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