Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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Early morning Survival Flight

Early Memorial Day morning, I heard the clatter of a helicopter over the house.
This isn't unusual - we live just a little more than a mile from Central Michigan Community Hospital and helicopter ambulances fly in and out of the hospital on a regular basis.
The early-morning flight, however, was unusual, and I didn't immediately recognize the markings on this air ambulance.
I know St. Mary's FlightCare, Covenant LifeNet and Spectrum Aero Med, but I couldn't place this one. I finished loading TheMorningSun.com's Memorial Day edition, then drove over to take a look.
It turned out to be a University of Michigan Survival Flight helicopter, done in maize and blue (talk about branding), and it didn't spend a lot of time on the ground.
I don't know anything about the patient who was being transferred to Ann Arbor at dawn on a holiday or why they were being sent there. I do know that helicopter flights aren't taken lightly.
I've had the opportunity to ride a helicopter ambulance twice: once as an observer (I love my job), and once as a patient. I'm pretty sure that flight 12 years ago saved, if not my life, my ability to function.
But a helicopter ride in a fully staffed air ambulance isn't cheap. It's tough to get an average price for a helicopter ambulance flight, but I've seen cost estimates anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000. A 2007 British study put the average cost at ₤6,000, or about $8,700.
No one - no one - faced with the potential loss of a loved one's life does this calculation: "Well, that helicopter will cost $9,000, plus the cost of the hospital stay ... We can get a nice funeral done for about $6,000 ... Let's just keep Mom here and not tell her."
A generation ago, there might not have been any other option but to start picking out Mom's casket. Options are better now.
The question is how it's paid for.