WKYT Investigates: As rural hospitals close, air medical flights become an option

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - At Boyle County's Stuart Powell Field, there is a group that is always on standby. The Air Evac Lifeteam has a hub at the Danville Airport.

After they get an emergency call, they have 10 minutes to be airborne. The number of calls is increasing for Air Evac, like many air ambulance companies in the country.

"Our company has probably opened three or four bases in the last five years," said Air Evac Program Director Donald Hare.

Things are calmer In Junction City.

"Been here all my life," said Mayor Jim Douglas.

But Douglas said there has been a slow progression in his town: the number of people taking to the sky is on the rise. He said more than 60 people were flown out of Boyle County by a medical helicopter last year.

A couple of months ago, Douglas and his council decided to buy memberships with Air Evac for everyone in the city, to cover them in the county if they need to take a ride on a medical flight.

"It could be a lifesaving thing," Douglas explained, adding that it will cost the city just under $12,000.

"It will be abused," he said. "Everything is always abused. They'll be flown when they don't need to be. They are now. But who's to make the call? I wouldn't want to."

WKYT took a ride in one of Air Evac's helicopters last month.

The paramedic on board, Michael Bentley said, "We generally get called out to the sickest of the sick patients. We're generally not going out to 'Joe that stubbed his toe on the refrigerator at home.' Our patients are major trauma type patients or cardiac events that have happened to these patients."

But air ambulances have made headlines recently for just that: picking up and flying out patients who end up with minor injuries and major money due to the medical flight. WKYT interviewed a mother in 2013 who's child was flown out by Air Evac. Four stitches to the head later, they owed thousands of dollars.

"Probably 80 percent of what we do is a fixed cost," said Hare.

The average cost of a flight is around $32,000 and insurance pays on average $8,000 and $12,000 of that cost, he said.

"14 or 15 percent of our flights, when we accept the call, we accept it not knowing whether the person has the ability to pay or not. And about 14 to 16 percent of our flights are people with no insurance whatsoever and don't have the ability to pay for that flight."

When asked what happens next, Hare said, "We work with them and try and set up a payment arrangement. We do what we can to obviously collect some type of payment."

Adam Tubbs is an EMT in Nicholas County. The Nicholas County Hospital closed more than a year ago. Tubbs said the ambulance service covers such a large rural area, sometimes it can take precious time by ground to get to an emergency call.

"We just go," Tubbs said. "It's just going to take us a while."

But that's why he said medical flights are important to his area. If it's questionable, they can be called.

"You're playing with somebody's life. At that point, I think everyone forgets about the financial obligation," he said. Tubbs said they call for air ambulances, on average, several times a week. "It is a hard call because of the cost of air transport but when minutes count, you gotta do what you gotta do," he said.

The judge executive in Nicholas County is hoping to have an air ambulance service based out of the county, which would save even more critical time for his residents, and also bring much-needed jobs to the area.