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Keys Expanding Affordable Airlifts For Critically Ill Residents

Monroe County Sheriff's Office

In the Florida Keys, serious medical cases are often airlifted to a hospital on the mainland. But how much a patient pays can vary widely, depending on which helicopter gets the call.

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office and the county Fire-Rescue Department run Trauma Star, which is based at the Marathon Airport. When a Keys resident is airlifted on Trauma Star, the county bills the insurance company. But Monroe County residents don't have to pay anything above what insurance pays.

A private company, LifeNet, runs the medical helicopter that is based at the Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West. Depending on a patient's insurance, they can wind up paying tens of thousands of dollars.

Now Monroe County is expanding its waiver for Trauma Star payments to seasonal residents who pay property taxes and are thus helping to pay for the service. And they've distributed stickers that read "Trauma Star First Option" to Keys residents.

The plan is to have locals put those stickers on their driver's licenses or medical insurance cards, so emergency responders will know which helicopter to call. Residents don't have to register with the county or provide any information until they apply for the waiver after an airlift.

The county recently sent residents stickers to put on their driver's licenses and medical insurance cards, requesting Trauma Star as a first option.

The county commission also decided to raise Trauma Star's rates from $5,500 a flight plus $80 a mile to $12,000 a flight and $100 per mile. That is still considerably less than LifeNet, which charges $22,500 a flight plus $333 a mile, said Monroe Fire Chief Jim Callahan.

Callahan said the county did not plan to be in the medical airlift business.

"Years ago, we couldn't get a private company to come in and do it," he said. "We couldn't get good firm answers. We couldn't get firm prices."

So the then-Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth decided to use money from the fine and forfeiture fund to buy a helicopter. Callahan said he has no way of knowing what proportion of medical airlifts from the Keys are with Life Net versus Trauma Star.

"They won't tell us how many flights they give," he said. "They tell us that's proprietary to their business, and they're private."

An email to Air Methods, the company that runs LifeNet, was not returned Thursday afternoon.

County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said the county next will look at the financial implications of a similar waiver for out-of-pocket costs on ambulance service.

"Many people don't think it's fair that we're footing the bill for all this very expensive air ambulance stuff, and we're paying for ground ambulance," she said.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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