Sumter County Times: Air medical provides invaluable rural transportation option

By David Duke, Florida Rural Health Association 

Emergency health care may never cross your mind, until your life depends on it. But when an emergency arises, the availability of potentially life-saving services becomes a top priority.

It’s scary to realize that when fast transportation is essential to receive critical help, residents of rural counties across Florida may be at a disadvantage. They may not realize how limited access to trauma centers can be until an accident occurs and they or loved ones need to drive hours for vital treatment.

Last month I was honored to speak at the Florida Rural Health Association’s annual Educational Summit about this all-important issue. Not surprisingly, the topic generated intense discussion as rural health administrators and professionals talked about the solution to this problem: emergency air medical services.

Emergency air medical services, which many think of as “life flights,” operate in all of Florida’s nearly 30 rural counties, but the state’s network of trauma centers tends to be concentrated in the larger cities. When I worked as an air medic at Tampa General Hospital, I saw firsthand how grateful patients and their families were for the fast access they received during a health emergency – thanks to air medical, which got them to the trauma center so much faster. For Floridians who wouldn’t have made it to a health center in time, these air services save lives.

As many residents of Sumter County know, the nearest specialized health care center may be a long trip away by car or ambulance. The extra time can make all the difference when every minute matters. These services provide more than just a ride – they offer skilled medical care onsite and en route.

While the benefits of air medical services are clear, they are increasingly threatened across Florida.

The reimbursement rates of government insurance programs 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.

Fortunately, 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.

The funding dilemma is having serious consequences on the individuals who need emergency air medical services, as well as on the services themselves.

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 to quickly get to appropriate trauma centers.

That’s why it’s important to have a discussion about increasing Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates to better match the cost of these services. Without it, people could be left without access to these services. Unfortunately, I know firsthand the devastating impact that could have.

I have seen hope and gratitude in the eyes of patients we transport – individuals who may not have survived otherwise. Now that the Florida Legislature is in session, I urge our lawmakers to consider the life-saving value of emergency air medical transportation and support adequate funding increases to keep these services available, especially for residents of Florida’s more rural areas.

David Duke serves on the board of directors for the Florida Rural Health Association.