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Privatization of Lee County's Medstar seems to be unpopular

Manning, Bigelow skeptics of doing so; Mann asks for openness to idea

Nov. 5, 2012
Brian Bigelow
Brian Bigelow
Frank Mann
John Manning
Tammy Hall


The Lee County commission today could take another step toward privatizing emergency medical flights, after mismanagement shut down the county-run program, Medstar, this summer.

Commissioners will vote on whether they want to solicit bids that could wholly privatize the service or just contract out certain aspects of the emergency medical flights.

In a planning meeting Monday, commission Chairman John Manning said he opposes a total takeover, reflecting on the county’s failed effort to privatize utilities in 1995.

“We had to bring that service back in-house again,” Manning said.

Former County Manager Karen Hawes authorized Medstar’s shutdown in August. While her subordinates claimed the measure would help obtain a county accreditation, a clerk of court’s audit recently concluded mismanagement prevented the program from complying with federal safety mandates and led to its shutdown.

The Federal Aviation Administration could levy more than $1 million in fines, or as little as $100,000, because county officials violated rules by billing patients for flights, Commissioner Tammy Hall said.

Hall said privatizing the service could limit the county’s liability.

“Obviously, if we go 100 percent private they’re probably not going to be as concerned, because there won’t be a future issue,” Hall said.

Commissioner Brian Bigelow said he won’t consider private options until the county’s program is back up and running.

Lee County operated Medstar for more than 30 years, he said, until it ran into management problems. Public safety, he said, should remain the county’s top priority in providing medical flights.

“This lifesaving public safety service, I think, merits the $3 (million) or $4 million, in my humble opinion,” Bigelow said.

Commissioner Frank Mann, however, said he wants to further examine privatization, as a measure that could save taxpayers between $3 million and $5 million a year.

“All I’m asking is, we have an opportunity now before us, to view things we’ve never looked at before, almost certainly with great prospects of saving money on either one,” Mann said. “Why would you eliminate either (a wholly privately run or partially private option)?”

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Commissioners will probably have up to six months to decide if they wants to pick a private company or put county-owned helicopters back in the air, county contracted attorney, David Hernandez said.

Generally speaking, Hernandez said, the FAA gives organizations six months to fix problems.

Assuming county staff immediately issues a request for formal bids, the commission could take the matter up again in as little as a month, Hall said.

The prospective companies have yet to say how much they would charge patients under a total takeover or bill the county for partial services. A representative of Aeromed, which has been flying Lee County patients since stepping in for Medstar in August, refused to tell The News-Press how much money it bills for the flights.

Aeromed and Tampa General Hospital spokesman John Dunn said the company would reveal the number if it’s selected.

Additionally, the county has not evaluated how many times Aeromed has failed to respond to emergency calls for a medevac over the past two months.

Assistant County Manager Holly Schwartz has said they can ask companies for that kind of information after the commission decides if it wants to move forward with privatization.

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