By Kate Dowling
After ambulatory helicopter care provider AirCare announced it was ending a reciprocal agreement with other major providers including Life Flight Network, by the end of this month, Life Flight responded with a sharply-worded statement calling on AirCare to reconsider their decision.
The statement, issued to The Beachcomber by Life Flight regional vice president Jacob Dalstra, referenced AirCare’s belief in its initial statement that these agreements don’t serve their original purpose because of airline industry deregulation and Medicare reimbursement changes. AirCare had said the agreement would end on March 25.
“Airlift Northwest’s sudden decision to stop covering members when transported by another air ambulance program like Life Flight Network apparently was based on a legal interpretation not shared by most of the industry and was made without any input or discussion,” Dalstra said in a prepared statement.
He told The Beachcomber that although Life Flight is not the closest air ambulance resource to Vashon-Maury Island, closer resources were unavailable at any given time and if it was asked to transport an islander, the company would.
The Beachcomber reached out to AirCare for comment on Life Flight’s statement. The UW Medicine-backed organization doubled down on its justification to end the reciprocity agreement, adding the termination date would not change. AirCare made that justification, in part, by mentioning Airlift NW’s founding in 1982.
“Over the past 38 years, the healthcare landscape has changed drastically. Decisions made decades ago are being reassessed to meet today’s needs and standards,” AirCare said. “Our recent decision to end membership reciprocity with other air ambulance services was not taken lightly nor done in haste. It was done after careful consideration in order to comply with federal laws and industry standards.”
The statement concluded, “Our goal is to provide service to our community while ensuring that we are meeting federal guidelines and standards. We are happy to discuss our decision with any community member.”
Dalstra told The Beachcomber that the decision is a disappointing one for Life Flight.
“We’ve had a long-standing reciprocal agreement with them and … we firmly believe that air ambulance programs can and should work together to protect all of our members against inadequate reimbursement by insurance and out of pocket costs required by medical transports,” he said.
In his prepared statement to The Beachcomber, which appears as a letter to the editor in this edition, Dalstra cited the “unprecedented COVID-19 crisis” as one of the reasons for the reciprocity agreement to continue.
“[The coronavirus pandemic] implores us all to work together to protect the health of our citizens, community, and world,” he said. “We must be stewards of our precious health care resources, including air ambulance programs, and provide as much peace of mind as possible for those whom we serve.”
Both AirCare and the Life Flight Network are membership programs that provide members with the assurance of covering potentially large out-of-pocket expenses that are not covered by private insurance for emergency air medical transportation.
Life Flight memberships are $69 per year for a household and having your own insurance — which is required by AirCare — is not a prerequisite to purchasing Life Flight’s medical air transport insurance. They have reciprocal agreements with a number of air ambulance services — including AirLift NW — that services Vashon-Maury Island, and is the biggest provider in Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Washington. And they are able to cover the country, with fixed-wing medical transports for their members.
Life Flight and AirLift NW both service the Western Washington area and AirLift has a helicopter station closer to the island, according to Dalstra. Although Life Flight has not been called to the island for a number of years, when AirLift is not available, Life Flight would be called in and vice versa. There are two new Life Flight stations that have opened within the last year in Coupeville and Port Angeles.
“I think the important part to know is that we encourage as many people as possible to sign up for membership,” Dalstra said. “I just think it is a smart thing to have because you never know when an emergency is going to happen.”
He added that for islanders, Life Flight could retroactively add membership in the case of an emergency.
“We will allow that person to sign up to be a Life Flight member retroactively meaning that if we fly an AirLift (AirCare) member we will contact them after the transport and say ‘hey, we noticed you are not a Life Flight member. Would you like to sign up for $69?’ and then that transport will be taken care of,” Dalstra said.
He said Life Flight cares about providing a service to the community.
“I hope that if we do end up transporting somebody our goal is for them to get the care that they need and not to worry about the expense of what the transport may or may not cost due to the lack of insurance coverage,” he said.
UW spokespeople are encouraging members who are concerned about changes or have questions, to call the membership line at 1-888-835-1599 or email email@example.com, or visit the website at airliftnw.org/aircare.
For more information about Life Flight, visit online at lifeflight.org.