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Debate Grows Over Northern Georgia Medical Helicopters

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ATLANTA -  "Probably one of the best business decisions I've ever seen a legislative body make."

That's how hospital Vice President Doug Fisher describes the deal Chattanooga's Erlanger Medical Center has made with Georgia's legislature.

The deal means $600,000 scarce Georgia taxpayer dollars would help put another of the Tennessee hospital's medical helicopters in the North Georgia mountains.

Since 30 percent of its trauma patients come out of Georgia, there's no question Erlanger helps save Georgia lives.

One of its three current helicopters is already based in Calhoun, GA at no cost to taxpayers.

But Erlanger says it needs the $600,000 government subsidy to put a second chopper in Northeast Georgia in the Rabun, Habersham County area.

11Alive News has spoken with some doctors who are part of Georgia's trauma care network who have concerns about the Erlanger deal, but none would go public with their criticism.

A private company that operates a half-dozen medical helicopters in North Georgia is openly criticizing the deal.

Air Methods says it already has adequate coverage in North Georgia.

Others complain that private Georgia helicopter operators should at least have been given the chance to bid on the new helicopter service.

The Erlanger deal had powerful political supporters in Georgia, including House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge).

Most of those live in the Northwest part of the state and praise the Tennessee trauma center's life-saving efforts there.

Georgia's State House put $600,000 for Erlanger in the budget, but the State Senate took it out.

It was saved on the final day of the session (April 29) by a six member conference committee from both bodies.

The fate of the deal is now up to Governor Sonny Perdue, who could still slash it from the 2011 state budget since he has line item veto power.

"There's probably gonna be several line items like that that will cause some controversy," said Bert Brantley, the Governor's Communications Director.

Brantley says Perdue and his staff will begin going over next year's budget by the end of this week.

"There's clearly a benefit for Georgians in this case, but it is obviously a Tennessee hospital providing that benefit, and there are potentially private providers as well," Brantley said.

"This is one that we'll probably look at very carefully," he added. "It's not one that is as clear cut as maybe some of the other ones might be."

Governor Perdue has until June 8 to sign the 2011 budget, which goes into effect July 1.
 



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