Recently, officials at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital (PMH) received questions about a perceived surge in helicopter evacuations. Seeking to clarify the role of air medical companies in the regional health care system, PMH CEO Barbara Lay requested an interview by The Pocahontas Times.
“I thought maybe we should be a little proactive about getting some information out, so that people understand the value of air medical and the value of what we can do here at the hospital,” Lay said.
PMH Chief of Medical Operations Dr. Frank Puckett said the purpose of air evacuation is to save time.
“The advantage for the patient is that we’re able to get them to where they need to be in a shorter period of time,” he said. “Realistically, we’re two-and-a-half hours from any large medical center and only 30 minutes by flight from a medical center. Nationwide, in rural areas, the use of air ambulance services is becoming more increased because of the risk/benefit. The benefit being getting a patient to be treated, as opposed to the risk of transporting by ground, which could cause a detrimental outcome.”
Puckett said roughly 90 percent of air evacuations go to Charleston and Roanoke. Another 10 percent go to more distant hospitals in Morgantown and elsewhere.
Insurance covers at least part of the air transport cost.
“I was just talking to the director of one of the air ambulance services,” Puckett said. “The cost is around $7,000 for a typical transport. Reimbursement in West Virginia can vary, depending on the type of insurance. Sometimes, they will try to not cover the cost at all.”
Air medical evacuation is done by private companies and the hospital has nothing to do with the billing by air ambulance services. Patients are transported by air regardless of their ability to pay.
“There is no discrimination,” said Puckett.
“Air medical is just like our emergency room,” said Lay. “When someone hits the door and they’re a true emergency patient, we start care. We try to get their name, age, date of birth, that kind of information, but we aren’t capturing insurance information to make a determination whether we care or not. It’s the same with air medical. They don’t even ask that question.”
Puckett said using ground transportation would risk lives in urgent cases.
“If the patient is critical – meaning a cardiac event, a stroke, a severely injured trauma patient, a patient that needs an ICU or emergency surgery – to wait for a ground transport for that is a life-threatening situation.”
PMH Director of Emergency Services Gary Brown said winter is the hospital’s busy season.
“That may be part of the reason that people are noticing the helicopters more,” he said. “We’re in our busy time frame, so, we utilize them this time of year more than we do in the summertime, because we have an increased patient load.”
Puckett said the PMH’s designation as a Level IV trauma center last year had increased the number of critical cases at the hospital.
“We’re seeing more critical patients arriving at our hospital, therefore, an increase in utilization of air ambulance services,” he said.
“I’ve been in health care about 20 years,” said Lay. “When I first started, there was one helicopter in the State of West Virginia. That was Healthnet [Aeromedical Services] in Morgantown. Now, there’s two air medical companies that are stationed in West Virginia and they’re in Summersville and Buckhannon.
So, they’ve placed more helicopters because they see that people do live in rural areas, play in rural areas and things occur in rural areas that need prompt evacuation and timely evacuation.”
“I think the next move you see will be a base around the Lewisburg area,” said Brown.
Brown said the hospital receives no commission for air evacuations.
“I’ve heard from a couple families, ‘does the hospital get a cut of this – is that why you’re doing this so much?’” he said. “We don’t. Once they leave our doors, we’re happy to be getting them where they need to be. That’s our goal. Our main concern is our patients well-being and getting them to the care that they need.”
Three air ambulance companies currently provide service in Pocahontas County – Healthnet, Air Evac Lifeline and Carilion Life-Guard. The Pocahontas Times will publish a follow-up article in the near future about the companies’ operations and the dilemma of air-evacuated patients without the ability to pay.