Health

University of Iowa AirCare boosts air ambulance transports

For-profit company that operates AirCare helicopter service facing lawsuits over high cost

An Air Care helicopter flies near Kinnick Stadium as it comes in for a landing at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
An Air Care helicopter flies near Kinnick Stadium as it comes in for a landing at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics AirCare helicopter service transported more patients last year with the addition of a Dubuque helicopter and new research favoring stroke care offered at the Iowa City hospital, officials said.

AirCare transported 932 patients in the year that ended June 30, up 6.6 percent from the previous year and the highest total since fiscal 2012.

“As you will see, the demand for air medical transport remains steady,” UIHC Spokesman Tom Moore said. “AirCare transports make a critical difference in the outcomes of the world class health care our patients receive here, and that has been the case for almost 40 years.”

Max Freund / The Gazette

AirCare, launched at the UI in 1979, has three helicopters, one in Iowa City, one at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo and one at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque. Adding the Dubuque chopper in 2016 has contributed to the boost in overall transport numbers in fiscal 2018, Moore said.

AirCare 3 in Dubuque serves patients in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, flying them to hospitals including UIHC, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., or the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Wis., said Angela Lauer, director of the Mercy Dubuque emergency department.

“In the past, we would call AirCare, but it would be a good 30 minutes” for the helicopter to arrive from one of the other locations, Lauer said. “Now we don’t have that wait time. We’ve had a lot of good outcomes with the helicopter.”

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IOWA CITY - Four years after the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics quietly outsourced its AirCare helicopter ambulance service to a for-profit corporation, the public hospital won't say how much money it's receiving from the company facing patient complaints about sky-high costs.

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Another reason AirCare transported more patients in fiscal 2018 was because of increased use of mechanical thrombectomy, a surgical procedure used to treat strokes, officials said.

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“We’ve seen an increase in transfers because we are the only comprehensive stroke center in the state,” said Dr. Enrique Leira, a neurologist and acting director of the UI’s Comprehensive Stroke Center.

New studies have shown the procedure can work up to 24 hours after a stroke, a longer window than previously thought,

Because stroke outcomes can be vastly improved with fast treatment, Leira believes air ambulance transports are particularly important in rural states like Iowa, where it could take much longer to drive to a hospital. Air ambulances also often have staff with more training.

AirCare was the first hospital-based air ambulance in Iowa and one of the first 15 programs in the nation.

The hospital now outsources the helicopter service to Air Methods, a Denver-based for-profit company. A Gazette investigation last month showed the firm is facing several lawsuits in other states and complaints with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office alleging exorbitant charges not in line with the actual cost of providing the service.

The UI has declined to say how much Air Methods is paying the hospital to be the “preferred provider” for air transports because the company filed a court injunction to keep that information secret. A court hearing over that injunction is set for July 30.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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