YVMC won't restart service

Air ambulance too expensive, officials say

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Yampa Valley Medical Center will not re-establish its air ambulance service, the hospital announced Thursday.

Hospital officials said an air ambulance is not economically feasible.

The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance has not been used since January, when the ambulance crashed near Rawlins, Wyo., killing three people and injuring one. In the months since, the hospital has been evaluating whether it should return the service.

The Board of Directors of Yampa Valley Medical Center made the decision at its Aug. 25 board meeting and announced it Thursday.

CEO Karl Gills said the hospital has spent the past eight months researching ways to re-establish an air ambulance service. It was economically prohibitive to do so independently, in a joint venture or through a contract with another operator, he said.

"Really, economics drove the decision," Gills said.

Since the crash, the hospital has primarily used Flight for Life and Air Life, which provide airplane and helicopter services from the Front Range. Eighty-seven patients have been transported by air from the hospital since Jan. 12. The hospital plans to continue to use the two services.

"This service arrangement is the norm for rural resort communities," Gills said. "Having an air ambulance based in a rural community is very rare."

Before the January crash, the hospital contracted with Mountain Flight Service to provide the air ambulance. Mountain Flight Service provided the plane and pilot, and YVMC supplied the medical crew and equipment.

The partnership was formed in 2001. Mountain Flight Service has operated the air ambulance since 1994 and transported more than 1,200 patients. Bob and Cindy Maddox purchased the company in January 1997.

After the crash, the Maddoxes said they did not wish to continue operating the ambulance. In an interview last week, Bob Maddox said they did not want to shoulder the responsibility.

"It does have to be someone other than a mom and pop business, because it is crushing for us," he said. "Something like this, it is still hard."

In March 2003, the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crashed near Kremmling. The crash was blamed on pilot error, and all three people in the crash walked away with minor injuries.

Gills said the most promising option the hospital board considered was a partnership with the Centura Health and St. Anthony Hospitals health system on the Front Range for an air ambulance in Steamboat Springs.

However, the air ambulance would not have been exclusive to YVMC, and the subsidy to have the plane stationed in Steamboat Springs was too high, Gills said.

"We were already subsidizing the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance, and this was going to be a great deal more," Gills said.

The hospital also considered joint ventures with hospitals along the Front Range. Gills said they had a few exploratory meetings but realized they were not going to meet one another's goals.

YVMC first looked at having an operation similar to its contract with Mountain Flight Service. The start-up costs of the aviation side -- a plane, pilot, training and maintenance -- were too much, Gills said. He said the board was unable to identify another aviation operator interested in partnering with the hospital.

The eight months taken to make a decision were spent reviewing the three options, Gills said. "We said early on we would explore as many options as we could," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crash. NTSB Regional Director David Bowling said having a hospital provide a medical crew to an air ambulance service is typical, but doing so under contract is unusual. Bowling said it also is unusual to fly patients who are not in critical condition, as Yampa Valley Air Ambulance did.

YVMC Public Relations Dir--ector Christine McKelvie said the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance was different from many others because it came from a much smaller hospital.

"We were possibly one of the smallest communities to have an air ambulance in the country. Almost all the patients were outbound," she said. "Most of the hospitals have air ambulances to bring patients to their hospital. We wanted to get patients to larger metro hospitals for services we couldn't provide. That is a major difference right there."

Gills said because of the time and resources needed to transport a patient on the ground, the hospital did air transports for most patients who needed to move from hospital to hospital. A ground trip by ambulance to the Front Range would tie up the ambulance and crew for an entire day, Gills said.

"Every patient transferred is not in a life-and-death situation, but every patient transferred by air ambulance is in a medical condition where they need medical transportation," he said. "They cannot be put in the family car and taken down."

Gills said the hospital's policy on when to transport patients by air will not change.

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