Maui may eliminate helicopter ambulance
By Chris Hamilton
WAILUKU, Maui — Forced to make difficult budget decisions because of a drop in tax revenue, Mayor Charmaine Tavares has proposed eliminating Maui County's only helicopter ambulance service, her staff said.
But as soon as the suggestion was made during last week's County Council Budget and Finance Committee hearings, it was met with strong opposition by council members and residents.
Transportation Department Director Don Medeiros said use of the helicopter had dropped by about 50 percent since a second medical transport company, using fixed-wing aircraft, began serving the county a few years ago. The helicopter doesn't handle as many trips between Maui County and O'ahu hospitals as it used to, and now focuses more on trauma and rescue operations, Medeiros said.
The county is facing a $56 million budget gap for services and programs in fiscal 2011, which could be increased by another $17.5 million if the Legislature decides to take the county's share of the transient accommodations tax — or hotel room tax — as the state battles its own budget woes.
Medeiros presented a plan last Tuesday to drop the county's $672,215 share of the funding for the 6-year-old helicopter ambulance program. The state Department of Health covers for the rest of the $1.2 million annual cost.
A private company, American Medical Response, that provides all road ambulances in the county, contracts Pacific Helicopters for the air ambulance program and supplies the onboard medics.
"I have heard from no one from the public thus far say, 'You cannot afford it,'" Council Vice Chairman Mike Molina said. "You can't put a price on anyone's life."
The County Council has until May 31 to come up with changes it wants in the mayor's budget proposal. Members must approve a balanced budget that takes effect July 1.
Medeiros said in an interview that between July and February, the air ambulance program flew 14 patients to Maui Memorial Medical Center, mostly from rural communities, Lāna'i and Moloka'i and hard-to-reach places, such as Haleakalā crater, 'Ulupalakua and Honolua.
When the air ambulance program was conceived in 2004, proponents estimated that the helicopter would handle 120 flights a year, he said.
The announcement of the proposed cut, which would take effect June 30, also happens to come just less than a month after Maui Memorial Medical Center broke ground a new $3 million helipad to accommodate the helicopter ambulance service.
Maui Memorial Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Wesley Lo said he was "very surprised" to see the proposed air ambulance program budget cut and lobbied against it last Tuesday.
He said now that the hospital is doing heart surgery and will also perform angioplasty procedures to unclog arteries and blood vessels, in the next six months, the number of patients using the helicopter will likely increase dramatically.
Two companies, AirMed and Hawaii Air Ambulance, provide airplane medical flights between Maui and O'ahu. Only one of the providers, though, Hawaii Air Ambulance, has a plane based on Maui.
"There are two fixed-wing aircraft serving Maui County," said Curt Morimoto, the Maui manager for American Medical Response. "That's absolutely correct; but the helicopter's ability to land anywhere is unbeatable."
Correction: Hawaii Air Ambulance, one of two companies providing medical flights between Maui and O'ahu, is the only one with a plane based on Maui. A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information.