A family-owned daily newspaper serving Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming since 1949

It pays to have air ambulance insurance

Mar 19, 2017 - By Randy Tucker

In today's evolving health care scene locally, it's a bargain compared to the alternative.

I watched a junior football game at the RJFL field on Major Avenue in Riverton almost two decades ago.As the two teams lined up for the opening kickoff, a helicopter approached from the east.The chopper reached the field and slowed for the final few hundred yards to the then-Riverton Memorial Hospital.

The kids all stopped, and despite cries from coaches and whistles from officials to kick the ball, the boys just stood there and watched as the helicopter made its approach.

You won't see that behavior in the youngsters playing at the field today. No, the kids haven't changed. They're still as distractible as ever, but helicopter flights have become so ubiquitous that few of us even notice them anymore.

We used to hear them and think of the poor person in critical condition with some life-threatening ailment, or of the twisted bodies of people involved in a horrible traffic accident, but no more. They've become mundane.

We live near the flight path from the Wyoming Medical Center to SageWest Health Care in Riverton. Each day and night we hear the Guardian or Classic Air helicopters arriving or departing from the two helipads near College View and West Sunset.

We had a more intimate look at the air ambulances serving our community last June.

As I was working on a tractor on a Wednesday morning my wife came over to tell me my mom had taken my dad to the emergency room. At 86, my dad remains spry and active, but abdominal surgery 30 years ago manifests itself occasional with gastric issues. That Wednesday was not his lucky day.

We were familiar with the symptoms and expected a procedure to alleviate his condition at the hospital in Riverton.But we all know the saying associated with what happens when you assume something.

The ER staff quickly went into action with tests, x-rays and scans, confirming our suspicions. In a previous event a few years ago, the procedure to clear the problem took an overnight stay. My dad was home late the next day.

What does it mean to be a hospital these days?Should you have emergency services?A delivery room? An intensive care unit?Qualified nurses and support staff?How many? What about a surgeon on duty? With a resident surgeon costing a hospital more than $1 million in salary, malpractice insurance, support staff and facilities, surgeons operating in smaller communities are a vanishing breed.

That Wednesday there was no surgeon on duty.The doctor had taken a well-deserved break for a few days. But with a sister facility in Lander there were at least two other surgeons just a few minutes away. The ER doctor made a quick call across the valley.Nope, they had taken vacations after the heavy rains last spring had flooded the facility in Lander. Only the ER was open.

The procedure was routine in 90 percent of the cases, but it required a surgeon to be on call just in case complications developed.The biggest complication that day was the shortage of surgeons.

The next step was transport to Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, but it was full. Yes, completely full, leaving Billings, Denver or Salt Lake City as the only options for treatment.Denver it was.

Once transport to Denver was the only option, the nursing staff contacted Classic Air Medical for a flight. My parents had an insurance policy with Classic, but the fixed-wing aircraft already was in the air flying a patient to Salt Lake City and wouldn't be available for several hours.The nurses contacted Guardian Flight. Thankfully, we could join that service for $50.

A quick ambulance ride to Riverton Regional Airport, then a 70-minute flight on a single-engine aircraft had us landing at Jefferson County Airport in Colorado.The flight nurse and EMT onboard were professional, extraordinarily competent and reassuring during the short flight.

A few minutes later I was standing in the hall outside my father's room on the sixth floor of the inpatient building at the University of Colorado Medical Center just after midnight. Surgeon Dr. Franklin Wright approached me with a straightforward question.

"Why are you here?"

That is the question that permeates the experience of many people with Fremont County medical services.

I have a friend who was diagnosed with a heart attack recently.The medical staff locally couldn't give him the option of purchasing insurance from another carrier when all the aircraft in the company he contracted with were out. Recent regulations now require a 72-hour advance fee before services can be offered.Neither service can honor contracts with the other.

His expenses for the flight to Casper are substantial, and he may end up paying all of it.

Other communities of similar size apparently don't have these issues. In Worland the Washakie County Commission has contracted for air transport from the hospital to bigger regional facilities. When this opportunity came up for Fremont County, why did our own commissioners punt on an option that would have covered the entire county for less than $8 per resident at a total cost of $290,000, including ground transport?

People living in the Dubois area with a 455 phone prefix are covered by a group policy with Guardian. An individual paid for the entire community initially, and now a fund established in Dubois provides coverage for everyone in the area.

The individual contracts available for Fremont County residents with our two established air ambulance services are a bargain when compared to a flight that could cost $50,000 or more. The 30 cents per day cost of contracting with both emergency air services is minimal when compared to the potential of going bankrupt and losing everything that people face in light of a heart attack or other serious ailment.

Classic has a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft with crews in Riverton. Guardian has a plane in Gillette, Worland and Lander, with a helicopter in Riverton. In addition, regional hospitals in Denver, Salt Lake and Billings have their own air ambulance services. Some of these aircraft and crews provide unique services such neo-natal care and even the ability to deliver a high-risk pregnancy while in flight. When your local hospital can't provide the services, and you need to stay alive, it is time to pay a little extra and get that care in a nearby community.

Medical care is evolving in America, with many smaller hospitals no longer staffing services they once provided.

People lament how Fremont County hospitals have evolved toward sending patients elsewhere, but the reality is that safe, efficient, airborne medical care are the wave of the future. If you have a similar story, please write a letter and share it.


Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.


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