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Seminole County, Fla., Considers Air-Ambulance Change

SANFORD, Fla.– The Teaser for item 9 on today s Seminole County Commission consent agenda sounds routine. It calls for awarding aeromedical helicopter services to Air Methods Corporation.

What the proposal would do, however, isn t routine. It would change who provides potentially lifesaving medical-helicopter service in the county.

Proponents of the change, including the county s public-safety director and fire chief, say it finally gives Seminole County an air ambulance based in the county.

But officials with the company that now provides the service said the proposed change not only discards 23 years of trouble-free service, but also could cost county taxpayers money.

For decades Omniflight Helicopters was the only company to fly patients to Orlando Regional Medical Center, Central Florida s only Level 1 trauma center. But Air Methods, which flies under the name LifeNet, began chipping away at that monopoly when it entered the market in 2004 in Lake and Sumter counties.

Earlier this year, Osceola County granted the Colorado-based company a certificate to provide the service. Now Seminole County appears ready to do the same.

Just because you re the lead dog on the sled for 23 years doesn t mean you re going to be the lead dog today, said Tad Stone, Seminole County s public-safety director.

Air Methods and Omniflight provided similar proposals to the county. Both proposed basing a helicopter at Orlando Sanford International Airport. Neither proposal would charge the county for responding to medical calls. The patient or the patient s insurance company would be billed for the flight.

It s the same deal except that we ve been with ORMC for 23 years, said Brian Burrell, Omniflight s regional manager. I know it sounds like sour grapes, but we ve been providing this service to the county for free.

Air Methods proposal initially commits to responding to 90 percent of calls within 15 minutes and 99 percent of calls within 20 minutes. That s because the Sanford-based aircraft would not be dedicated to Seminole County.

It would be available to handle other calls in the areas served by LifeNet. Having a helicopter dedicated to Seminole would cost the county $1 million to $2 million annually. Stone said that is not something the county is going to do.

Other nonmedical helicopter services that LifeNet might be asked to provide, such as aerial reconnaissance tours after a disaster, would be charged to the county at approximately $1,250 an hour, according to the company s proposal.

Stone said he recommended Air Methods because it is a larger company with considerably more resources than Omniflight.

Omniflight made 109 flights into Seminole County between Nov. 1, 2006, and Nov. 1, 2007, an average of about nine a month. Another 75 flights were made into the county to transfer patients between hospitals. At an average of $10,000 a flight, Seminole County accounted for about $1.8 million in revenue to Omniflight in that time period.