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Choppers used more to transport trauma victims

North Memorial Ambulance Service put on a helicopter demonstration last week in Park Rapids for the public to see. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

BY Sarah smith

Hubbard County authorities briefly closed off a section of U.S. Highway 71 west of Lake George late Friday night to allow a Medevac helicopter to airlift an ATV crash victim.

Choppers are increasingly being used to quickly transport trauma victims and victims of serious medical conditions to nearby medical facilities.

It’s not a cheap mode of transportation – a helicopter ride can cost $15,000 to $20,000 – but it may save in the long run.

“Lately we’ve been using a bunch of them,” said Emergency Medical Technician Jason Johnson. “It’s been crazy lately.”

Because North Memorial Hospital has ambulance services throughout the state, including Park Rapids, Johnson said trauma and severe medical issue calls are immediately routed to the Robbinsdale headquarters of the ambulance service.

There are dispatchers who are EMTs and trained to give advice over the phone, such as how to administer CPR.

But EMTs on the ground must make snap decisions as to whether a victim needs a helicopter or ground ambulance.

North Memorial and other ambulance services have guidelines as to whether to airlift someone or transport that person by ground. Johnson said if a patient meets their set of criteria, “they launch a helicopter.”

“Typically it’s because of the level of care they need,” said Dennis Mackedanz, manager of Park Rapids’ North Memorial unit.

“We have two choppers in Bemidji and two different services, Sanford and North Memorial,” he said.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes said local dispatchers don’t make the call; they defer to medical experts on the scene.

But the availability of two services close by makes it more likely airlifts will be used.

“It depends on the specialty” needed and what the hospital offers, Mackedanz said.

Patients aboard a ground ambulance or even a chopper don’t get a choice as to which hospital they’re taken to.

“Insurance covers it if it’s medically necessary,” said Kathy Anderson of Avenson Insurance. “‘Air or ground transportation licensed to provide basic or advanced life support from the place of departure to the nearest medical facility equipped to treat the condition’,” she said, reading from one policy.

But all policies are different, whether a patient is on Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare, group insurance and/or Medicare.

“Basically ambulance service is covered to take to you to the nearest facility that can reasonably treat your illness,” Anderson said.

“I’ve not had many issues with” the cost of airlift to insurers, she added.

“Health insurance benefits are available for ambulance services and are available for transportation to the nearest facility equipped to provide the required level of care,” said Andrea Dinneen, spokesperson for BlueCross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

“Benefits are also available for air transportation when ground transportation is not medically appropriate and necessary,” she added.

“This means that a patient’s medical condition must require immediate and rapid ambulance transport to the nearest appropriate facility that could not have been provided by land ambulance; or the point of pick-up is inaccessible by land vehicle; or great distances, limited time frames, or other obstacles are involved in getting the patient to the nearest hospital with appropriate facilities for treatment; or the patient’s condition is such that the time needed to transport a patient by land to the nearest appropriate medical facility poses a threat to the patient’s health.”

“We can cancel the helicopter and it’s no cost to the patients,” Johnson said.

“If it’s unwarranted it can be a bugger,” Johnson added. “We’re very careful about putting them on. They’d better need it. And we’re going to have some of them that when they get there we find out it’s nothing so bad but until we get X-ray machines on ambulances I got to go by signs and symptoms” at the scene.

“To tell you the truth, insurance companies are kind of pushing us because the sooner we can get ‘em to the proper facility, whether it be stroke or heart attack or trauma, the faster their recovery time is,” Johnson said.

“In the long run, it’s tons of money in savings,” he said. “Insurance companies kind of push it because they save it when it comes to rehab.”

The EMT crew at the scene of the ATV crash, which included Johnson, immediately called for a chopper.

“It looked like he had a collapsed lung and broken ribs to us,” Johnson said.

“They hit a tree and he got ejected from the ATV, probably 20 yards and wrapped himself around a jack pine,” Johnson said, describing how the crash was described to crews on scene.

The crash is believed to have been alcohol-related.

Hubbard County called in First Responders and used all deputies on staff to close the highway. Others went with the ambulance deep into the woods to retrieve the victim.

The rescue operation took an hour.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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