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The commission will take up medical flights today at 1:30 p.m. in its chambers, 2120 Main St., Fort Myers. There is no public comment.

Lee County Commission chambers


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The Lee County Commission today could either move along plans to privatize emergency medical flights or put the county’s own helicopters back in the air.

Reinstating the government-run program, Medstar, could be problematic, as county officials would have to seek the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval — after violating the agency’s rules for nearly a year, acting Public Safety Director Holly Schwartz said.

Conversely, if the commission decides to go forward with a model to privatize rescue helicopters, they would do so without any idea how much the companies charge patients.

The company county staff calls the best option, Aeromed, won’t disclose the dollar amount they bill patients for emergency service.

In August, county officials called in Aeromed to temporarily replace Medstar. They’ve been flying patients for Lee County Emergency Medical Services since.

“That was not part of the information that was requested of us,” Aeromed and Tampa General Hospital spokesman John Dunn said. “Again, we will discuss that if we get selected.”

Lee County charged an $8,500 liftoff fee and $90 per mile. Private companies can charge nearly double that amount and insurance companies might not cover all the fees.

The county also hasn’t evaluated how many requests for flights Aeromed has turned down the past two months. It took paramedics 53 minutes to get a 19-year-old to the hospital in September, after the company’s helicopter had a mechanical failure. County officials have not responded to a request for information about other responses.

“They don’t want us to know the less than flattering aspects,” Commissioner Brian Bigelow said. “I think that the fix is in.”

Schwartz said county officials may negotiate patient fees and evaluate services, if they move forward with privatization.

Bigelow said he won’t even entertain private offers until county-owned helicopters are back in the air.

Collapse

Mismanagement led to the collapse of the county’s program and its shutdown Aug. 21, according to the draft version of a Clerk of Court audit.

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County officials had failed to meet federal safety mandates for nearly a year. They also improperly billed patients for about $3.3 million in flights — violating rules and triggering an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Former County Manager Karen Hawes resigned with a $250,000 payout last week, after Commissioner Frank Mann threatened to have her terminated for Medstar mishandling.

While commissioners won’t select a company to contract at today’s meeting, they have been asked to choose a model.

Aeromed and another company, Med-Trans, propose performing medical flights at no cost to taxpayers. Under their plans, the companies would provide services and turn a profit from patients and insurance companies.

Mann said privatization could help the county close its annual budget shortfall of about $30 million. Medstar’s operating costs amount to about $5 million a year, according to county documents.

“I’m excited about the possibility of going out on the street and reviewing and entertaining proposals that we’ve never had before,” Mann said. “I hope we have a majority that will support it.”

Two other companies, Metro Aviation and Keystone Med-Flight, have proposed different models that afford public officials greater control of the service.

Under their plans, the county would pay fees to a flight service – the dollar amount has not been calculated – and the county would then try to collect money from patients.

Chris Hansen, the county’s former deputy public safety director who officials brought in to consult after Medstar’s shutdown, said all fees and charges can be determined once the commission picks a plan.

Hansen, who also sits on Lee Memorial Hospital’s board of directors, said the Med-Trans offer calls for the county to supply paramedics to the company, allowing public officials greater oversight of the emergency service.

The county has spent money on training its flight paramedics. Pilots the county let go after the program’s shutdown also had training at county’s expense.

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In 2010 the county spent another $5 million on a new headquarters for Medstar and buying a used helicopter.

That helicopter, however, will have to be sold. The 2002 Bell 430 is expensive to fly and maintain, according to the private companies that want to provide the service, but aren’t willing to operate the county’s primary helicopter.

Republican Party candidate for Commission District 2 Cecil Pendergrass said he would rather restart the county’s service, because saving lives — instead of a company’s profits — should be the concern of an emergency medical service.

“I just think we need some management,” Pendergrass said. “My concern with public service is to make sure the citizens are served and at reasonable fee.”

A former FAA attorney turned defense attorney, David Hernandez, will be on hand Monday to discuss the county’s problems with the FAA. County officials hired him after revelations about improper billings were exposed.

Hernandez urged the FAA to forgo holding county officials legally accountable, because the improper billings were an isolated mistake and the money will be returned, in a letter he sent federal regulators.

“(Lee County) fully understands the seriousness of this matter, and this incident was certainly a learning experience that will deter future incidents,” Hernandez wrote in the Oct. 15 letter.

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