Despite their lifesaving capabilities, Life Flight Network, the company that administers air ambulance service in Missoula, will remove its plane from its base at the airport at year's end.
Patients who need to be taken to specialty care services at Level 1 trauma centers, such as those found in Seattle and Salt Lake City, likely will take the Life Flight plane stationed in Butte, chief customer officer Justin Dillingham said Friday.
Dillingham said after Life Flight Network’s purchase of Northwest MedStar, which had provided Missoula’s air ambulance services since 2014, became final in April, the company examined its resources and found crossover between the planes in Missoula and Butte.
“Most of what (Missoula’s) plane was doing was going down to areas around or south of where the Butte plane is,” Dillingham said, ticking off Dillon, Anaconda and Butte itself, as well as Salmon, Idaho, as places the plane collected patients to bring to Missoula. “There’s a few patients, not a lot, that have to be flown out of Missoula, but it’s very few.”
Dillingham did not respond to a request for the number of patient transfers Missoula’s plane conducts, or how often it took patients to trauma centers like Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center or Intermountain Medical Center in Salt Lake City.
Missoula has had dedicated air ambulance since Providence St. Patrick Hospital started an in-house service in 1981. A plane has been stationed in Missoula since 1989.
Dillingham said when one of the Missoula hospitals needs to transfer a patient by plane, the hospital will alert the ground ambulance crew to help prepare a patient and take that person to the airport. At the same time, he said Life Flight’s plane in Butte will fly over to pick the patient up.
If that plane is unavailable, Dillingham said Life Flight also has a plane in Spokane and others stationed around the Northwest that could be brought in, or it could contact other providers in the state to have a plane standing by when the patient arrives at the airport.
“It’s almost as if there’s a plane right there because the patient notices almost no difference,” he said. “The folks in Missoula I don’t think will notice any difference whatsoever.”
Dec. 31 will be last service date for the Missoula plane, which Life Flight Network operates through a contract with Metro Aviation, which owns the plane and employs the pilots.
Dillingham said Life Flight Network will add a jet at its Aurora, Oregon, headquarters that can be dispatched to places like Missoula if a patient needs to be moved farther, such as to the East Coast.
Abby Berow, emergency department clinical coordinator at Community Medical Center, said she doesn’t think the removal of a Missoula medical transport plane will change the hospital’s ability to make sure patients can be moved quickly.
“I don’t think that for us it will have all that much impact,” Berow said. “It takes time for us to prepare a patient for transfer and get them to the airport. It’s a 20-minute flight from Butte and about 30 minutes from Spokane.”
Berow said not all of the hospital’s transfer patients, which include those with significant trauma, neurosurgery or nephrology needs, have to be moved by plane.
“They don’t always need to go to a tertiary location by air. Spokane and St. Patrick could be on the road or by helicopter,” she said.
Providence St. Patrick Hospital did not return a request for comment.
Todd Utz, trauma coordinator with St. James Healthcare in Butte, said he has been in touch with Life Flight Network about the change.
“They assured us that we will have a plane here when we need it,” he said. “They have really been great for us in Butte.”
While Life Flight and St. James do not have a contract for air ambulance services, Life Flight is the hospital's preferred company. Utz said that if a Life Flight plane is not available, the hospital also works with REACH Air Medical Services in Bozeman and Helena. Utz said the hospital also has used a plane stationed in Billings.
Level II trauma patients are usually moved by helicopter or ground ambulance, he said.
“The only thing we transfer out is our neuro patients and severe burns,” Utz said, adding the former are usually taken to Missoula or Billings, with burn patients taken to Salt Lake City.
Earlier this year, the Montana Legislature’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee created the Air Ambulance Working Group to look into the gap between the cost of services and the reimbursement rates from insurance companies, which left some patients with bills of tens of thousands of dollars.