UVM Medical Center Plans to Expand Air Ambulance Service | Off Message

UVM Medical Center Plans to Expand Air Ambulance Service


The helipad at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • The helipad at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington
There could be more landings next year on the helicopter pad at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.

Hospital executives are in contract negotiations to expand air ambulance service in 2018 through a collaboration with DHART, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advanced Response Team. The deal could be completed within the month, according to Eileen Whalen, president and chief operating officer of UVM Medical Center.

The new service would focus on interhospital transport of critically ill patients in UVM's service area, which includes Massena, N.Y. — a three-hour drive from Burlington. That same journey takes about 35 minutes through the air, according to Whalen.

The service would allow patients with acute health problems, be it a stroke or heart attack or neonatal illness, to get the care they need more quickly — and it could save lives in the process, Whalen said. The service would not include medical air transport from emergency scenes such as car crashes.

"There are absolutely times that an air ambulance is far more beneficial to the patient," Whalen, a former trauma nurse, said in an interview with Seven Days.

John Fortune, a UVM Medical Center trauma surgeon and interim medical officer for the network's regional transport system, added: "We think this is going to result in a tremendous improvement in the care of patients."

Currently, almost all the patients who are transported between the 13 hospitals in the UVM service area are moved by ground ambulance. The new service means that there would be an increase in the roughly 190 air ambulance landings that now take place each year at the hospital helipad off East Avenue in Burlington.*
Eileen Whalen, president of UVM Medical Center - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Eileen Whalen, president of UVM Medical Center
DHART, based in New Hampshire at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, already carries out some of those trips under a decades-old arrangement between the hospitals. Other ambulance services also use the helipad to pick up patients in Burlington and fly them to hospitals in the Boston area or New York City for more specialized treatment .

UVM Medical Center will not purchase its own helicopter but will staff one provided by DHART; it will be based in Burlington. The chopper will bear the UVM Health Network logo.

UVM Medical Center is working to restructure the emergency transport options in the 40,000-square-mile area of New York and Vermont that makes up its service area. For patients within that boundary, UVM Medical Center is the nearest academic hospital and provider of level one trauma care for the most serious health problems.

It's unclear whether UVM Medical Center will need regulatory approval from the state Green Mountain Care Board for the new air ambulance service. The board's chair, Kevin Mullin, said such a review would depend on the terms of the contract.

DHART already has a certificate of need from the 1990s that allows the hospital to operate a helicopter service in Vermont. Lawyers for the UVM Medical Center argue that a new certificate of need is unnecessary because the plan represents an expansion of existing service. The hospital will share details with the Green Mountain Care Board once the deal is finalized, according to Whalen.

The board is charged with controlling health care costs, among other things, and air ambulance is certainly a major expense. The average trip is 52 miles and costs between $12,000 to $25,000 per flight, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Some states, such as Maryland and Montana, have considered legislation to control air ambulance costs after patients were stuck with large bills their insurance didn't entirely cover.

Whalen declined to say how much the helicopter ambulance service would cost patients, pending the contract negotiations with DHART.

Correction, October 3, 2017: A previous version of this story misstated the annual number of helipad landings.