If you are seriously injured in Alaska — or you need extensive surgery — ground transport to medical services may not be an option. Even if it is, the dearth of specialized services in much of the state means that in all likelihood, you’re headed to Seattle.
The statistics, and the economics, can be sobering. In Juneau, Bartlett Regional Hospital medically evacuates more than 2 percent of the its patients per year — 337 patients from the Emergency Department and from inpatient units in 2016, up from 318 the year before and 273 in 2014.
Types of patients who end up being medevaced include stroke or heart attack patients, critical trauma patients, people who acutely need vascular or other specialty surgery that Bartlett cannot provide, neurosurgery, some orthopedic procedures, pediatric illness/surgery, or burns, said BRH Chief Clinical Officer Rose Lawhorne in an email.
If you don’t have health insurance, the bill for air transport alone will be crippling. If you do have insurance, many insurance companies don’t cover air transport, and even if they do, your share of the out-of-pocket expenses can still be substantial.
The average cost depends on flight service and destination, noted Lawhorne, adding that, for example, a Haines-to-Juneau flight would be less than a Juneau-to-Seattle flight.
“With that in mind, the cost is somewhere between $30,000 and $150,000-$170,000 per flight,” she wrote. “It’s not hard to recognize the benefits of not owing even a 20 percent copay of the $150,000 flight.”
Until this month, Juneau residents have had their choice of two providers in town that provide yearly memberships at $100-125 from Airlift Northwest and Guardian, respectively, which guarantee full coverage of the cost of emergency medical transportation.
Now — as of May 1 — there’s a third provider in town, LifeMed Alaska. The air medical service, which has moved into the hangar formerly occupied by Wings of Alaska, is a nonprofit formed in 2008 by the merger of two corporations owned by Providence Health and Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation. LifeMed Alaska also has bases in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Bethel, Palmer, Soldotna and Dutch Harbor.
“LifeMed Alaska is an organization that is owned by Alaskans, managed by Alaskans, and serves Alaskans. We are positioned to understand the diverse needs of our patients in Southeast, because we understand the uniqueness of the communities here,” said David Svobodny, the new Juneau base manager for LifeMed Alaska, in a prepared statement.
‘It’s about transporting the patients’
Typically, Lawhorne said, the physicians and nursing supervisors decide which flight service to use, based on —among other factors — whether there are contracts in place, the preferred provider status for that patient’s insurance, and the available of the service. If no contract or membership is in place, availability of service or provider preference determines which service is chosen.
LifeMed Alaska is the preferred provider for Aetna and Premera. According to the company’s director of clinical services, Ted Galbraith, the new Juneau base was partially driven by the insurance providers’ desire to have a base in Southeast Alaska.
LifeMed Alaska will base two Lear jets, one as backup, in Juneau; each can accommodate two patients.
“We expect we will be very busy in the summer due to the influx of tourists,” Galbraith said, adding that the need for services varies widely by location.
The type of patients totally runs the gamut, he says, with lots of trauma care. Last year, 73 percent of the patients served by LifeMed Alaska were adult, 18 percent pediatric, 5 obstetric and 3 neonatal.
“We’re the state’s only neonatal specialty transport team,” Galbraith said, adding that those flights will have specially sized equipment, as well as medical staff on board with specialized training.
Because LifeMed Alaska is operated by a nonprofit, its membership is offered at $49 a year, Galbraith said.
“It’s a pretty great deal for Alaskans,” he said. “We have the lowest price point — and also no waiting period. If you need it, you can sign up right at that moment.”
Galbraith said the membership revenue doesn’t cover the cost to operate the flights.
“It’s about transporting the patients,” he said. “We have a mandate to transport all Alaskans. We don’t have to make a profit, we’re owned by a nonprofit. All they ask is that we don’t cost them money. We also have a charity care plan for those without a membership or a healthcare plan.”
The new Juneau office will host a community open house in June; for more information, visit LifeMed Alaska’s Facebook page.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.