Remember the fear of paying for an emergency medical helicopter ride out of the Keys? It was terrifying even if it was to save a life. Now it’s a different story, thanks to the efforts of Monroe County’s Trauma Star, which became the only air ambulance program in 2017 but has been operational since 2001. Overseen by Monroe County Fire Rescue and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, Trauma Star has seen a dramatic increase in emergency flights over the past decade. The good news is twofold: it’s a free service for residents of Monroe County, and is managing to cover all the costs for patients.
“Trauma Star has never been about the money,” said Monroe County Fire Rescue Capt. Andrea Thompson, who has been on board since the first helo flight 17 years ago. “It’s about providing definitive care to the community who otherwise does not have access to it. Our success comes from our passion for it and is always focusing on the patient.”
The numbers don’t lie. Each year, Trauma Star is becoming more invaluable by transporting patients not just from Marathon and Key West airports, but also from the site of crashes and accidents — bridges and roads and even the Dry Tortugas. The 2018 fiscal year saw a total of 987 patients (an average of three a day) up from 2017’s 814 and double 2016’s 471. As long as traffic and tourism stay on the rise, so will the need for better air transport. Since 2006, Trauma Star has transported more than 4,400 patients to critical care not available in the Keys.
The success of the program can now be measured by its bottom line. There are no out-of-pocket costs for county residents who use the life-saving service. Trauma Star’s 2018 fiscal year’s operational cost was $6.6 million but it has collected more than $7 million.
“Private companies were charging an insane amount of money to appease shareholders. We keep it reasonable, below industry standard, so insurance companies do respond and pay the bills.” Thompson credits the in-house billing done by two local women, who understand the community as well as know how to fight for every dollar. Trauma Star employees live here, so the operation has a personal touch and understanding when it comes to finances and care. Proof of residency has never been more vital in getting the help needed to save thousands of dollars.
Trauma Star will be adding a third Sikorsky helicopter, already paid for by infrastructure funds, by the end of the year if everything goes to plan. From Sweden, the aircraft already had a medical interior and was EMS ready. It is just being fitted with a new pedestal to accommodate two patients, new wiring and air conditioning.
“The program is attracting some of the most qualified medical attendants and all of our pilots have some sort of military background with countless flying hours. All around, we know our community and we work hard to keep it healthy,” said Thompson.