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

Pressure is on to fill Island medevac need

The bill collector has come to the door. The burden for providing medical emergency airlifts is about to fall squarely back on the shoulders of state and local authorities, where it's belonged from the start.

On April 1, the Army will suspend medevac flights that transport victims of serious traffic accidents because its Black Hawk helicopter crews need to train for war duty.

In fact, say emergency medical service officials, the Army medevac has been working with reduced staffing for two years, and have warned for several months that an overall suspension may be coming.

Although the door has been left open for the service to resume after October 2007, the state must face the fact that this suspension could extend indefinitely. The overarching military duty to fulfill defense needs will still be there for the foreseeable future, so it seems unlikely that the chopper crews will have free time 18 months from now.

The Army has been providing this service in Hawai'i at no extra cost to Isle taxpayers since 1974, and local agencies have coasted on a responsibility that elsewhere is carried out with in-state funding.

For the short term, at least, state taxpayers will have to foot the bill for a contract with a private emergency service with a certified record of competence. This may ensure a baseline of quality performance that is essential but is sure to be very costly.

With the need for medical airlifts from O'ahu's crowded highways being a particularly pressing demand, and with Neighbor Islands in need of specialized emergency care in Honolulu, providing air ambulance services is a critical public duty government must fulfill.

Lawmakers are in the hot seat to see that they're online as soon as possible. The just-introduced bill, to allot $600,000 to underwrite a short-term solution the state Health Department can negotiate with public or private partners, is a good start.

Let's hope the state's search for service providers gets under way swiftly, even before the legislation reaches the governor's desk.