Gadsden County Times: Why rural areas need expedited care

By Laura Hampson and Sarah Catalanotto, Florida Rural Health Association

Picture this: A loved one suffers a medical emergency or has an accident that leaves them in desperate need of professional medical attention. For many Floridians in rural counties with limited access to trauma centers, that can be a startling, scary reality.

During a medical emergency, it is absolutely critical to get access to quality care as quickly as possible. That’s why air medical services are so crucial for Florida’s more rural counties, including those that surround the Tallahassee area.

Consider, as just one example, the recent major car crash involving a drunk driver in Gadsden County. Five individuals were seriously injured and required fast emergency medical transportation, including an air ambulance. Incidents like this emphasize the critical need for emergency air medical services to protect our communities.

While the benefits of these air services are clear, they are increasingly threatened across Florida and the nation. The reimbursement rates provided by Medicaid and Medicare fail to cover a significant portion of the cost to operate these services, which is alarming when you consider that 70 percent of transport patients are covered by government insurance or have no insurance at all.

The funding dilemma is having serious consequences in rural Florida communities. Just a few months ago, the Tallahassee air medical base was forced to shut down because of a lack of funds to support its operations.

Emergency air medical helicopters are essentially emergency rooms in the sky providing critical care by highly-trained flight doctors, nurses, and paramedics. Keeping a state-of-the-art air ambulance and trained crew on standby 24/7 undoubtedly carries significant hard costs. This includes equipment costs, structural overhead, and the expense of keeping a base at the ready around the clock, every day of the year. But the expense is necessary to ensure that people in rural communities have the peace of mind of knowing they can be taken care of quickly in the event of a serious medical emergency.

In our role as comanagers with the Florida Rural Health Association, we know how important these services are and how much harm is caused by the current lack of Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement funding.

This is especially true for the more rural counties across the state. Only two-thirds of Floridians live within an hour of a Level I or Level II trauma center by ground ambulance. The rest must rely on emergency air medical services in order to quickly get to appropriate trauma centers.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to fight the threat to emergency air medical services. Initiatives like the Save Our Air Medical Resources (SOAR) campaign are working to educate the public on the problems and possible solutions surrounding continued air medical services.

You can’t plan where or when an emergency will happen. Whether it’s a heart attack, stroke, car accident, or other type of unexpected incident, you must be able to trust that the medical services you need will be there when you need them.

And in a state with as many rural areas as Florida, it’s especially important that air medical services remain a realistic option for everyone.

Laura Hampson and Sarah Catalanotto serve as co-managers of the Florida Rural Health Association, an organization that works to safeguard and improve the health of rural Floridians.