Members Fly "Free"

Inexpensive Annual Subscriptions Give Rural Residents Easier Access to Emergency Medical Flights

Emergency air medical transportation has become increasingly important in rural communities. (Progressive Farmer photo by Dan Crummett)

The early evening of Aug. 11, 2016, saw Megan King and her husband, Buddy, working calves on horseback near their home in Okeene, in northwest Oklahoma.

"We had to move a dead calf," King recalled, "and I was dallying the rope on my saddle horn when I dropped the rope and somehow spooked the horse I was riding. He reared up, and we hit heads."

The blow left King temporarily unconscious, just long enough for her mount to run mid-pasture and buck her off.

"I awakened on the ground and called my mom, who drove me to the emergency room at Okeene Municipal Hospital," she remembered. "While there, however, I began to lose feeling in my arm and leg, and I was having terrible pains in my neck. That's when the ER doctors -- fearing I had possible brain or spinal cord injuries -- called for the helicopter."

A crew from Air Evac Lifeteam responded to transport King 65 miles -- a 28-minute flight -- to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, in northeast Oklahoma City. There, she was diagnosed with a concussion, a broken pelvis, three broken sacral vertebrae and a fractured elbow. Fifteen hours later she was stabilized, and family members drove her home to heal.

King said her unexpected flight was like that of many other rural residents who wake up one day and never expect to be on a helicopter to a hospital before the day's end.

"The difference in my experience, however, is I had become a member of the AirMedCare Network not two months before my accident," she said. "And, for that $65 annual membership, the total bill for the flight was covered beyond what my own insurance paid.

"I work for the Okeene hospital," she explained, "and in June of 2016, the entire staff of the hospital signed up.

"I was thinking, I'm 31 years old, I really didn't need to spend this money. But, two months later, I'm strapped in a helicopter on the way to Oklahoma City."

WIDESPREAD ACCESS

King's experience mirrors those of about 200,000 trauma patients per year as the helicopter air-ambulance business in the United States has grown steadily over the past 35 years. Currently, the national average for the air medical industry is about one flight per day per aircraft.

Today, Air Medical Group Holdings (AMGH), Lewisville, Texas, and Air Methods, located in Englewood, Colorado, are the largest players in the business, fielding a total of more than 700 medical-evacuation helicopters (and some fixed-wing aircraft) to provide quick emergency access to an increasing number of Level I and II trauma in rural areas.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 25% reduction in deaths for severely injured patients who receive care at a trauma center rather than at a nontrauma center. The faster they get there, the better.

"The state of air-evacuation equipment has changed tremendously for the better since the scenes in M*A*S*H, where the injured were strapped on a gurney outside on the helicopter's framework," said Deborah Slover, program director for Air Evac Lifeteam bases in Stillwater and Cushing, Oklahoma. Air Evac Lifeteam is one of five AMGH subsidiaries.

AIRBORNE EMERGENCY ROOM

"Today's medical aircraft essentially provide a flying emergency room crewed by a pilot, flight nurse and an emergency medical technician," Slover explained.

The medical evacuation aircraft usually are light utility helicopters. Typical equipment found inside includes a secure gurney, a ventilator (breathing assistance), a standby cardiac monitor and IV drip equipment -- nearly everything found in an emergency room or intensive care unit. Pilots are rated for both visual and instrument flight rules, and are equipped with night-vision goggle technology.

Megan King sings high praises for her experience in the air the night of her accident. "The difference in 28 smooth minutes in the air compared with the more than an hour drive I'd have had to endure in an ambulance with a back brace on the rough roads we have in our area was a godsend. Also, I was hallucinating from the pain meds I'd received at the hospital before the flight, and I vomited more than once. The crew took all that in stride and kept me comfortable throughout. I never had a painful moment."

King said her medical evacuation experience convinced her of a nearly universal need for people in rural America to be a member of such a service.

"As I said, I was skeptical of the need to sign up, and less than 60 days later, I needed it. Then, before the year was over, my brother-in-law who lives locally also flew to Oklahoma City after suffering cardiac arrest," she explains. "Now, I never want to be without it [air medical services membership]."

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

Christina Ward, a spokeswoman for Air Methods, said with many rural hospitals closing and the aging of the nation's rural population, the need for air medical services is growing.

"Air medical transportation is increasingly important in rural communities where access to emergency facilities is limited. Approximately 115 million Americans live more than an hour away from a Level I or Level II trauma center if driven by ambulance," she explained. "Since 2010, rural hospitals have closed at a rate of one per month across the country, leaving many rural residents increasingly farther from emergency care.

"When minutes count, an emergency air ambulance can mean the difference between life and death, and at Air Methods, we believe everyone deserves access to lifesaving care; and, we're proud to play a role along with our peers."

Both Air Methods and AMGH sell memberships that cover out-of-pocket expenses of a trauma flight.

Currently, the Air Methods Advantage program is supplemental to a member's health insurance and available for $40 per year for individual coverage, $75 per year for family coverage. AirMedCare Network premiums are $65 per year for a household, and it requires no health insurance membership for payment.

Both companies also offer discounted memberships through various group rates.

For More Information:

-- AMGH: www.amgh.com

--Air Methods Advantage: www.airmethods.com/airmethodsadvantage/home

Note: Membership benefits are not reciprocal between companies.