A check-up on air rescue resources after Ballad Health consolidated services

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TRI-CITIES (WJHL)- News Channel 11 is checking up on air rescue resources one month after Ballad Health consolidated services.

Wings Air Rescue is now the only private provider of medical emergency flights in the region after their new contract with Ballad took effect July 1.

Beginning October 1, Ballad also plans to realign level one trauma services at Johnson City Medical Center and downgrade services at Kingsport’s Holston Valley Medical Center and Bristol Regional Medical Center.

“It was really easier for us from a consolidated trauma standpoint to have one vendor to work with to coordinate care so they would not be duplicating services,” said Eric Deaton, Ballad’s senior vice president of market operations.

Wings, a former partner of Mountain States Health Alliance, previously split the service area with PHI Air Medical, a contractor of Wellmont Health System.

Wings Program Manager Dwain Rowe said they’ve seen a slight increase in patient volume, spread out across the service area since their new contract began.

“We have not experienced yet the need to increase numbers of helicopters or increase the number of staff but that’s something that I literally look at every day and review every month with my management team to determine if there are any gaps in coverage,” said Rowe.

Wings Air Rescue currently has four helicopter bases across three states.

Rowe said they also partner closely with Virginia State Police.

Deaton said VSP’s Med Flight is maintaining full services in Abingdon.

This map shows the airbases in Ballad Health’s area still in full operation following the consolidation of services.

A base near Bristol Motor Speedway, previously owned and operated year-round by PHI, will now only be used for special events, according to Deaton.

“It was in a population density that is well served by three very good EMS services,” said Rowe.

Rowe said having bases in rural areas, rather than population centers, allows helicopters to reach the patient and get to a tertiary care facility more expeditiously.

“Typically helicopters are used more for longer distance transports than just in a single county,” he said.

Rowe said the closest base to Sullivan County is in Elizabethton. He said it’s just a few minutes away by air.

“If we see that base needs to be re-opened then that can be a decision that is made as well because we’ll continue to maintain that site and that helipad,” said Anita Perry, Ballad’s EMS liaison.

For rural populations, some worry poor weather will prevent timely air transports once Ballad has consolidated level one trauma services.

“When it’s raining so hard it affects the visibility and makes it difficult for us to reach our patients,” said Rowe.

Rowe said there are very few days where they’re entirely unable to fly, though it’s not uncommon to be out of commission for a part of the day during a passing storm.

Following the consolidation of trauma services, Deaton said he expects more transports to Johnson City Medical Center. He said he doesn’t expect more air rescues overall.

Deaton said they’re in the process of adding a second helipad to JCMC to improve air traffic flow.

Rowe said the cost of air rescue varies widely based on the distance traveled, the care provided and the insurance plan of the patient.

He said some insurance plans don’t cover air rescue.

“We don’t ask for insurance information before we fly a patient because it’s emergent and for us to ask for that information would delay that patient’s transport,” said Rowe.

Med-Trans Area Director Sarah Gordon said, in some cases, insurance companies determine an air transport was not medically necessary and refuse to cover it, leaving the patient with a large out-of-pocket charge.

Gordon said Wings offers a membership plan for this reason.

“Unfortunately, none of us can predict that trauma and that’s why we advise anyone to look at your insurance plan and consider getting a membership. It covers any out of pocket cost. It even covers it if your insurance denies the claim,” said Gordon.

Gordon said the membership costs $85 annually and covers the buyer’s entire household. She said it can also be broken up into smaller monthly payments.

You can learn more about the membership plan here: https://www.amcnrep.com/

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