Medevac Officials Denounce Proposed Reform Legislation

MARYLAND — Under a legislative microscope, state police officials are building up a defense of their medevac helicopter system and forcefully denying it needs reform.

State Sens. John Astle, D-Annapolis, and E.J. Pipkin, R-Elkton, were anticipating opposition when they unveiled a proposal in December to divide the state’s helicopter fleet into law enforcement and medical divisions, introduce new safety standards, and require bids from the state police and private operators to ensure the most cost-effective operation.

That opposition mobilized in force Thursday during a heated hearing ostensibly to discuss Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal to use $40 million to buy two new helicopters. The meeting with the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee quickly devolved into a chance to denounce the senators’ legislation.

Questions have dogged medevac officials since a critical audit and crash last fall. Although Maj. A.J. McAndrew, the commander of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command, said he is supportive of the senators’ new safety proposals, splitting the fleet and putting the operation up for bid are untenable suggestions.

“We do not need to be reformed and should not be required to compete in a bid process to maintain the medevac operation that we developed in this country 39 years ago, refined over those 39 years, and (we) are a model for other people worldwide,” he told the committee.

The discussion developed after Col. Terrence Sheridan, the superintendent of state police, said the price tag to replace the helicopters is a good deal.

“Maintaining the fleet’s mission is the correct thing to do,” he said. “The cost is miniscule compared to what we get out of this program.”

Underlying the helicopter purchase proposal, however, is a much more fundamental debate. Since the Sept. 28 helicopter crash killed four people, the use of the medevac helicopters has fallen.

Although historically there have been about 4,200 medevac flights a year, this year the number is more likely to be 1,700, said Dr. Robert Bass, the executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.

A study is being done now to determine whether the state should maintain eight helicopter bases or go down to seven or six, Dr. Bass said. “We want to make sure we don’t overshoot this reduction,” he said.

For Mr. Pipkin, who attended the hearing, going ahead with buying new helicopters when the flights are significantly declining is “mind-boggling.”

“This is the toughest political operating group in the state,” he said after the meeting. “All this testimony won’t change the basic fact that we need to improve the safety.”

What Thursday’s rhetoric demonstrated is the attempt to change the medevac system will feature an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

“There’s a documented threat that’s been proposed by Sen. Astle and Sen. Pipkin,” Maj. McAndrew said. “We should be moving forward to improve our current state of affairs as opposed to submitting a bid to keep what we have been doing for the last 39 years.”

Mr. Pipkin’s response to the criticism: “What are they afraid of that they won’t compete with private industry?” he asked. “Saving lives isn’t just about helicopter flights.”

The senator believes the support of new safety regulation proposals means the ground is starting to shift in his favor.

“Our efforts are already having impact,” Mr. Pipkin said. “A year ago that would have been met with stiff resistance so the process is working.”

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