Long Island Business News
February 17, 2015
North Shore-LIJ’s High-Flying Ambulance Takes Off
By: Claude Solnik
Although the North Shore-LIJ Health System has its share of shiny, new devices, it recently added a tool to its arsenal that can literally fly circles around everything else – a helicopter.
The system partnered with Yale New Haven Health System to launch a program called SkyHealth that transports patients by air between their facilities.
A blue air ambulance lets North Shore-LIJ move patients from and to its hospitals at speeds up to 130 miles per hour as far west as Westchester and east as Bay Shore and to and from Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven. The Long Island Sound vanishes as an obstacle to care.
The Eurocopter EC 135, staffed by paramedics and nurses, weaves together hospitals into one true system where the trauma centers are more accessible.
Dallas-based Med-Trans Corp. maintains and operates the helicopter, trains pilots and handles medical billing for the joint venture between the two systems. The helicopter is based at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
North Shore-LIJ says it can use the highway in the sky to transport patients between and to its facilities, although some critics say this benevolent bird could be used to move patients within the system – rather than to non-system facilities that may be closer.
Jon Sendach, deputy executive director of North Shore University Hospital, said the copter “allows you more comfortably and quickly to bring patients into the hospital with a high level of care.”
The system has invested $7 million in the high-flying vehicle outfitted with mechanical ventilators, cardiac monitoring, incubators and other equipment used in intensive care.
That’s on top of $6.5 million to build a rooftop helipad at North Shore University Hospital. The system expects to move 350 to 400 patients by helicopter in its first year.
North Shore-LIJ can land helicopters at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and Staten Island University Hospital and Peninsula Hospital in Far Rockaway. There is a landing pad near Huntington Hospital.
Children flown to North Shore University Hospital can be transported by ambulance to Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
North Shore-LIJ CEO Michael Dowling said the “helicopter enables us to avoid congested highways and provide the fastest hospital-to-hospital transfers for our most vulnerable patients.”
Flying from Southside Hospital to North Shore University Hospital, for instance, takes 10 to 15 minutes, cutting ambulance travel time by a half-hour or more.
“Traffic conditions haven’t improved for years. The roads are just more congested,” said Alan Schwalberg, vice president of North Shore-LIJ’s Center for Emergency Medical Services. “The idea is to move them as quickly as possible so they can get care in the specialties they require.”
Police copters already serve area hospitals, moving patients following accidents and other emergencies to venues such as Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola and Stony Brook University Hospital.
“We get about 400 helicopters a year,” said Dr. James Vosswinkel, chief of the division of trauma, emergency surgery and surgical critical care at Stony Brook University Hospital. “From a trauma system’s perspective, a helicopter on Long Island is invaluable.”
Police copters, however, carry patients free of charge following emergencies to hospitals police deem best and quickest.
“The police department does a tremendous public service to Suffolk County,” Vosswinkel said. “They make sure the patient gets to the right place at the right time.”
If police copters a la M*A*S*H* move people in emergencies, SkyHealth transports patients between and to facilities within the system, rather than following emergencies.
“When you have patients in critical condition, you want to reduce their out-of-hospital time as much as possible,” Schwalberg said. “These patients can wind up in community hospitals and need to be moved.”
North Shore-LIJ, which recently created insurance arm CareConnect, can save insurance costs by keeping patients in the system rather than flying them to other providers. Sendach said patients can be “repatriated,” so the system can “take care at better cost.”
Medicare pays $3,000 to $4,000 for a medically necessary helicopter transport, according to Med-Trans.
Sally Kweskin, a spokeswoman for Empire BlueCross BlueShield, said the insurer covers air ambulance when “it is medically necessary that the patient be moved and no other form of transportation is safe.
“I don’t have a line of sight into how much a helicopter ambulance ride costs,” she said, “but they are expensive.”
Patients could be hit with costs if they decide to fly, especially if it’s not considered medically necessary, as well as copayments even if it is.
Sendach said physicians often will take into account “the wishes of the patient and/or family” along with a “clinically appropriate destination.”
But one healthcare provider who spoke on condition of anonymity said copters could be used to create ease over distance – at the expense of closer competitors and at higher cost to patients.
“You de-regionalize healthcare,” the provider said on condition of anonymity. “You develop a corporate structure. To have that function appropriately you need to transfer people expeditiously.”
North Shore-LIJ believes a helicopter can provide patients with new options and potentially save lives, and the partnership between the two systems lets them provide an option neither could alone.
“We’ve been wanting to do this a long time,” Sendach said. “We needed to find the right clinical partner, so we could spread the opportunities across a bigger area. It’s not that cost-effective to have crews sitting.”