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Medstar helicopter / Dennis Culver/news-press.com
Larry Kiker, left, and Cecil Pendergrass

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Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass took the commission chair on his first day in office Tuesday. The retired Fort Myers police officer won the District 2 seat previously held by Brian Bigelow. Freshly elected Commissioner Larry Kiker will serve as vice chair. The former Fort Myers Beach mayor won the District 3 seat after beating Ray Judah in the Republican primary. As chair, Pendergrass will keep order during commission meetings, sign contracts and work with staff to accomplish the board’s goals.

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After 34 years of carrying the critically injured, Lee County’s medical flight program came to an end Tuesday in a commission vote that aims to escape federal fines and outsource the emergency service at a savings.

While commissioners don’t have any idea how much money a for-profit company will charge Lee County’s patients, they unanimously agreed to surrender the county’s federal flight certificate and contract a company to replace public safety’s Medstar.

“The option (to restart Medstar) is always there, but it would take a considerable amount of time to get a certificate once it’s been surrendered,” Assistant County Manager and acting Public Safety Director Holly Schwartz said.

Turning in the flight certificate may spare the county fines that federal regulators can levy once their investigation of the county concludes, Schwartz told commissioners.

Those penalties could amount to more than $1 million, Commissioner Tammy Hall has said.

County officials broke federal rules by billing patients, they say, for $3.3 million without meeting federal safety mandates for close to a year.

Today, county officials will solicit formal bids from companies that want to respond to emergencies in Lee County, Schwartz said. Specifics should be presented to the commission sometime in January, once staff vets the offers, Schwartz stated.

The commission could choose to either turn over the entire service to a company or keep county paramedics on board privately-owned helicopters.

Schwartz said that the cost to patients, the county’s savings and an examination of a company’s reliability can be performed as part of the process to select a provider.

Aeromed spokesman John Dunn has refused to say how much money his company has been charging Lee County patients for medical flights. County officials called in the Tampa-based company to temporarily take over for Medstar in August.

Private companies can charge patients close to double the county’s fees of $8,500 for liftoff and $90 per mile. Health care insurers don’t always pay the whole price, leaving patients to pick up the tab.

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Aeromed’s performance over the past three months, specifically how many flights it has turned down or failed to take, also remains undisclosed.

In privatizing the service, county officials think they can cut as much as $2 million from the budget, Assistant County Manager Pete Winton told commissioners Tuesday.

After fees are collected from patients and insurers, Medstar costs the county about $2 million a year to operate, Winton said.

The details of a plan and its potential cost to the county, however, have yet to be worked out.

Improper charges

When ex-county manager Karen Hawes suspended Medstar in August, she knew about the failure of county management to meet safety regulations.

However, Hawes’ subordinates in the public safety department claimed the shutdown was a temporary measure designed to seek voluntary accreditation. The News-Press later discovered the improper charges.

The clerk of court plans to finalize its audit of Medstar next week, Clerk of Court Charlie Green said. In a draft report, auditors concluded that mismanagement ultimately led to the program’s dysfunction.

The proposed cost savings was of little consolation to men who used to work aboard county helicopters.

“If the county can’t afford public safety, then why is the government so enamored with running baseball stadiums,” former Medstar pilot Arnold McAllister said.

McAllister was referring to deal the commission struck with the Minnesota Twins earlier this month, in which the county will take on an estimated $91 million in debt to pay for Hammond Stadium improvements.

The move to a private company also could save the county the cost of buying a new helicopter.

County officials picked a 10-year-old helicopter to replace the one that crashed off North Captiva in 2009 — instead of using the insurance money to purchase a comparable replacement.

Companies that expressed interest in taking over for Medstar refused to fly the aging airship, because of the cost involved in operating and maintaining it, according to letters of interest medical flight companies submitted earlier this year.

The county also plans to pick a public safety director by January, Schwartz said.

Former public safety director John Wilson left the county in Medstar’s fallout and 180 people have applied to replace him.

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