Emergency Helicopters Need Safety Oversight

Flight accident attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm report on emergency helicopter safety concerns and the for-profit companies at the forefront. Air ambulances have been subject to criticism recently for their lack of oversight on medical care, with grave consequences for patients being transported.

The air ambulance industry has seen rapid growth while insiders try to correct the myriad of safety issues. There have been nearly 200 emergency helicopter crashes since 1998, nearly all with fatalities. The safety issues contributing to these crashes are quite disturbing: companies trying to cut costs, skirting safety to maximize number of patients picked up, and under-resourcing equipment and crew.

Two recent profiles from The Bulletin detail victim’s stories of needless deaths and medical mistakes. The most recent death occurred in October 2014, when an Oklahoma hospital patient needed transportation to another medical center in Texas. The patient, a gunshot victim, was picked up by an Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter, despite having just returned from a flight to Oklahoma City.

They picked up the patient around 1:30 a.m., but came in to land too quickly and aborted the landing. While trying to regroup, the pilot took a sharp turn, causing the helicopter to spin out and crash into the ground upside down. The helicopter exploded, killing the patient and two members of the flight crew.

Industry experts believe this Oklahoma flight is indicative of the larger problems in the emergency helicopter business, which is amplified by lax oversight and high reimbursement rates. The industry itself has grown substantially over the last 15 years, though the criteria and regulations have not been keeping up with the growth.

Unintended Consequences

Before 2002, all emergency helicopter services were owned and operated by hospitals and flown with experienced ER doctors and nurses. In fact, hospitals often lost money on the operation because they were equipped with extensive trauma care. In 2002, hospitals successfully lobbied the government, which agreed to reimburse hospitals more accurately.

The 2002 agreement doubled payments for air ambulance transport, causing companies to take advantage of this generosity. These companies figured that if they skimped out on crew members and used less-expensive helicopters, they could profit substantially on emergency air services.

For-profit operators were established by the hundreds – in October 2003 there were 545 emergency helicopters, and by September 2013 there were 1,020. More than a third of all air ambulance programs are owned by three for-profit companies: Air Methods Corporation, PHI Air Medical, and Air Medical Group Holdings. Some states now have more emergency helicopters than all of Canada or Australia.

This trend has had dire consequences. In 2008 the industry had its most deadly year ever with nearly 30 fatalities and dozen crashes. For-profit companies account for 80% of these crashes. One recent analysis found that, between 1998 and 2012, for-profit emergency helicopter companies averaged seven to eight crashes per year, while non-profit operators averaged just one crash every year or two.

There is a wide array of factors impacting the safety of emergency helicopters, including the quality of aircrafts, crewmember experience, and lax federal oversight. The bottom line is, however, that patient safety should be of peak priority; too often, the top priority is on profits. The Bulletin articles, here and here, go deeper into the details of this issue.

The helicopter accident lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm would like to remind patients of their rights as injured victims. Millions of dollars are available to patients injured or killed by emergency helicopters or the personnel. With increasing frequency, EMS helicopters are poorly maintained, staffed with inexperienced crew, piloted by over-worked employees, or improperly engineered.

Although some crashes are undoubtedly unavoidable, far too many are caused by human, managerial, or design error. If you or someone you love was involved in a helicopter crash of any kind, contact our firm to discuss your rights and potential case. Our case reviews are always free of charge and available to injured victims nationwide.

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