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Lee County Medstar turbulence intensifies

FAA grills program officials; former paramedic tells commission he resigned over 'lies, gag orders, threats.'

Sep. 25, 2012


Federal Aviation Administration officials questioned Lee County management Tuesday about the federal rules it violated by charging $3 million for medical flights aboard its Medstar helicopter.

The meeting is part of an investigation the agency launched after revelations surfaced the county had failed to meet federal safety standards needed to bill patients for flights.

“I just hope the FAA came in here well prepared, so they know what the appropriate questions are, rather than just walk around the courthouse without knowing what to ask for,” said county Commissioner Frank Mann.

The FAA does not discuss ongoing investigations, spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen has said.

County officials grounded the county’s helicopters last month, claiming then that the stoppage would help them obtain a voluntary accreditation from an out of state organization. They admitted to the federal violations only after The News-Press confronted them with proof of the improper billings.

The county now will have to refund $320,000 that was collected and cancel out the remaining bills.

The Medstar issue also took center stage at Tuesday’s commission meeting, when a veteran paramedic announced he resigned Monday “because he could no longer listen to the lies and be held by the gag orders and threats” of county administrators.

“It is clear to everybody that the shutdown of Medstar had nothing to do with the national accreditation,” former flight paramedic Jason Ausman said. “Clearly this story was fabricated to cover up the truth and it is a violation of county policy.”

County Manager Karen Hawes admitted earlier this month public safety managers told her they planned to go public with their accreditation story. However, Hawes said, she didn’t understand what they meant.

Estero Fire Rescue’s Assistant Chief Mark Whalig also stepped up to the podium at Tuesday’s meeting to criticize county management.

“We are offended that the county administration feels it necessary to cast blame onto our organization for unjustified use of the medical air transport system in this incident,” Whalig said. “We find this action disgraceful and without merit.”

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Whalig’s remarks were aimed at a statement EMS Chief Kim Dickerson issued last week that claimed Estero Fire Rescue wasn’t complying with county guidelines when it requested an airlift for a 19-year-old who was critically injured and trapped in a truck wreckage.

According to the guidelines Dickerson cited, helicopters are to be used only when there’s a ground commute of more than 30 minutes.

It took first responders 53 minutes to free the teen and drive him to the trauma center at Lee Memorial Hospital, after the privately owned helicopter officials are using in place of Medstar failed to start.

Whalig said first responders commonly call in a helicopter when they’re faced with a time-consuming extraction and severely injured patient.

“When precious time is consumed untangling occupants in serious crashes such as this one, utilizing medical air transports can give this time back to patients by dramatically reducing their transport time to a trauma center,” Whalig said.

The testimony drew little reaction from four of the five Lee County commissioners.

A request by Commissioner Brian Bigelow to open an investigation of Hawes’ conduct and reinstate Medstar pilots didn’t gain any traction with other commissioners.

Bigelow said Hawes broke the county’s charter by terminating the three pilots and program’s director without the commission’s approval. The program, he said, is funded and authorized by the commission and cannot be undone without its consent.

While commission Chairman John Manning also requested the opinion last week, County Attorney Michael Hunt didn’t act. Hunt said he wanted the approval of the whole board first and it would take him up to two weeks to formulate it.

“I had hoped he’d look into this,” Bigelow said. “I’ve tried to point out many, many, times over and over again that the program, Medstar, was not appropriately suspended and this is because it is a program that is approved and funded by this board.”

Clerk of Court Charlie Green said his office had planned to work with FAA inspectors, but was later told to stay out of it. Commissioners called on Green to audit the program amid mounting scrutiny.

“The FAA didn’t want the clerk’s office involved.” Green said.

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