Medstar is going private. Well, partially.
In their first move as Lee County commissioners, Cecil Pendergrass and Larry Kiker joined Commissioners John Manning, Frank Mann and Tammy Hall in unanimously agreeing to relinquish control over the county's air ambulance program to a private company.
JEMS.com Full Coverage: Medstar Controversy
The agreement will save the county about $2 million annually, county officials said. It is also expected to bring in money because the county's two helicopters will be sold and its hangar will be leased to a private company, officials said.
The county will continue to handle ground transportation.
In addition to the public-private partnership, county officials also considered keeping Medstar completely county controlled and taking it entirely private. Officials are considering four private companies to take over Medstar helicopter operations.
"We begin with getting money back from the helicopters, we have a chance to reduce the budget by $2 million and we can ensure the program stays in place," Kiker said. "(It's) an all-around win."
County officials suspended Medstar in August after it was revealed the program didn't have all of its federal safety certifications but billed patients more than $3 million for hospital flights. Four employees, including three pilots were let go.
An audit released earlier this month by the county clerk described a dysfunctional program, marked by a lack of oversight, a "silo mentality" and infighting.
As part of the public-private partnership, Medstar's insurance and certifications would be controlled by a private company. The "Part 135" certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, which the county didn't have but needed when it was charging for flights to the hospital, would be dropped.
The FAA is expected to fine the county millions for the certificate violation, but by choosing the public-private model, some of those fees could be dropped or greatly reduced, county officials said.
Some Medstar paramedics and former pilots aren't buying it.
"It's disgusting," said Dan Ceresa, a paramedic. "They're reacting to bad information given to them by the same people who got us into this mess."
As part of the public-private partnership, the county will need 10 more ground ambulances, Assistant County Manager Pete Winton said. Six employees will be hired, and the ground paramedics will remain county employees. But the pilots who were let go, including Arnold McAllister, a flight paramedic and pilot for more than 20 years, may not come back.
McAllister first brought the billing issues to light, right before he was put on administrative leave and ultimately terminated.
"No more contributing to my pension, nothing," McAllister said. "I really don't want to sue, but I have an open and shut case."
The second portion of the clerk of courts investigation into the Medstar shutdown is expected to be completed by early December. It will include a recommended solution that may or may not be a public-private partnership.
By January, commissioners are expected to name a new public safety director. The county is currently sifting through 180 applicants.
Pendergrass described the public-private partnership as "the best thing to do."
"The county is taking action, the people on the ground get to keep their job, the mechanics could make more money not being under county control and we're hiring a new department head," he said. "We're doing the right thing to provide services to the county."