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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gap in medevac service possible

 •  Army will halt medevac flights

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

A bill to fund emergency medical helicopter flights on O'ahu has been introduced in the Legislature, but government officials acknowledged yesterday that there may not be enough time to implement a plan that would avert an interruption in medevac service.

Rep. Michael Magaoay, D-46th (Kahuku, North Shore), introduced the measure Monday and said it would direct the state Department of Health to find an alternative to the Army Black Hawk helicopters that currently provide the service. The measure would appropriate $600,000 to the department.

The Army last week announced it will suspend the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic service on April 1 because flight crews are needed to train for war duty. They deploy to Iraq this summer.

From 1974 to late 2004, the Army flew about 7,000 patients from rural O'ahu to town hospitals for emergency treatment.

Magaoay's bill only directs the Health Department to "contract with an existing government agency or United States military unit" to provide the helicopter service. He said it's up to the department to come up with a plan.

"Nobody has the magic answer," Magaoay said. "All we're trying to do is provide the vehicle. We're just the glue. They have the components and we want to make sure the glue is steadfast so they stay together until the mission is done."

At a news conference yesterday, Magaoay and several leading Democrats said the bill is a first step in addressing the problem. But with a little more than two months to go before the Army suspends the service, no one could guarantee that there would not be a disruption in service.

If the bill is approved, the $600,000 won't be available until July 1.

"There are no assurances that from April to June when they decide to deploy that there's going to be continuous service," said Senate President Robert Bunda, who represents Wahiawa and the North Shore. "What we wanted to do is to begin that dialogue between the administration and the Legislature for them to come forward so that we can work together on this."

Janice Okubo, Health Department spokeswoman, said yesterday that officials are "still exploring all of the possible options."

"We would work toward doing everything possible to avoid having a gap in service, but that's still a possibility depending upon what option we have to go with," Okubo said.

Rep. Tommy Waters, D-51st (Waimanalo, Lanikai), said the money could be used to retrofit a Hawai'i National Guard helicopter or to contract for services with a private entity.

"It literally is a matter of life and death. Without this money, I'm afraid lives may be lost," Waters said.

A National Guard spokesman has said that the Guard cannot take over the entire MAST duties because it does not have enough full-time crews. The Guard has eight Black Hawks that have taken part in emergency missions.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker, D-5th (West Maui, South Maui), said the matter of part-time crews could be worked out. Baker, chairwoman of the Senate's Health Committee, cited Maui's air-ambulance service that began in 2004 and the problems that had to be ironed out.

"The Maui experience was we contracted with the pilots that are on for certain periods of time. Those are some of the logistical kinds of things that actually can be worked out and have been worked out in the past," Baker said.

Andy Kluger, chairman of Hawai'i Air Ambulance, said his company has offered to provide dispatch services and training for any new crews.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.