Medevac debate becomes heated

The Baltimore Sun

Police officials launched an emotional defense of Maryland's state-run medevac system yesterday, which faces a privatization initiative from General Assembly critics whose case for reform has been bolstered by a recent fatal crash and critical audit.

A routine legislative briefing about Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal to purchase two new helicopters turned into a heated exchange yesterday between the police major in charge of the medevac fleet and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican who wants to require the police to compete for the job with private services.

"Excuse me for getting a little emotional about this," said Maj. A.J. McAndrew, in response to suggestions by Pipkin that officials may have failed to notify local EMT personnel about a fatal medevac crash in Prince George's County in September. "We went to the wall trying to find those people ... those were my guys in that helicopter."

Yesterday's exchange is likely the first of many spirited debates this year between managers of the state's vaunted medevac system and its critics in the legislature. Democratic leaders have predicted that the state's EMS system for air-lifting accident victims will come under strong scrutiny during the legislative session that began this month.

Pipkin and Sen. John Astle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, have teamed up on a bill that would require the governor to create a Cabinet-level department to oversee emergency services and consider allowing a private company to run the transport fleet.

"We do not need to be reformed," McAndrew told members of a Senate budget committee yesterday. "And we should not be required to participate in a bid process in order to maintain ... medevac operations that we developed" in 1970, he said.

McAndrew told the panel that Aviation Command has implemented numerous improvements and is willing to adopt all of Pipkin and Astle's safety recommendations, which echo safety standards encouraged by a panel of experts convened last year by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. Among those recommendations are that Maryland's medevac system meet Federal Aviation Administration standards and that two medical crew members be on each flight, rather than the single paramedic used now.

Pipkin and Astle, a retired medevac helicopter pilot, also call for splitting the system into two fleets. One would provide emergency medical services and be operated by either Maryland State Police or private contractors, depending on the winner of a bidding process. The other would serve law enforcement, homeland security and search-and-rescue functions.

McAndrew argued yesterday that such a division would hamper helicopter response in situations where law enforcement and medical functions were required. Pipkin said such cases are extremely rare and should not guide policy.

After yesterday's hearing, Pipkin criticized O'Malley for forging ahead with a planned procurement of new helicopters before the legislature has debated the reform bill. Aides to O'Malley said the governor's $40 million budget proposal is a strong indication he remains committed to a state-run program.

Maryland's medevac system is considered among the best in the country, and its long-term safety record has been widely praised. But a legislative audit last summer found problems with maintenance and data tracking, and the September crash has provided an opening for critics who feel the system may be both too expensive and not safe enough.

"We're going to have intense debate," Pipkin said. "We've had a crash, we've had a bad audit. ... This is the time to improve safety."

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