Access to emergency air ambulance service at risk

SkyLife of Central California, an air ambulance, and other services like it throughout the state could be at risk if a source of funding is not renewed by the California Legislature.
SkyLife of Central California, an air ambulance, and other services like it throughout the state could be at risk if a source of funding is not renewed by the California Legislature. Sierra Neighbors

On June 9, members of California’s network of emergency air medical providers are assessing how dramatically their ability to care for patients will be impacted if one of their primary sources of funding is not renewed by the California Legislature.

The Emergency Medical Air Transportation Act (EMATA) was established in 2010 to specifically fund emergency air ambulance services by placing a $4 fee on moving violations.

The EMATA program sunsets on Dec. 31, 2017, unless renewed by the Legislature. Legislation introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) that would extend the sunset for this crucial fund is currently stalled in the Assembly.

The fee generates approximately $8 million for California’s emergency medical helicopter network, and allows the state to receive an additional $8 million in matching funds from the federal government. Without this funding, air medical bases are at risk of closure.

“We recognize that the fees being tacked on to traffic tickets have become excessive, but without a funding source, we risk making these services, that are often the difference between life and death, available to only the wealthy and privileged,” said Wood. “We must find a solution for this critical piece of our state’s infrastructure.”

A significant number of patients transported by emergency air medical services are only covered by California’s Medi-Cal program. The reimbursement rates from Medi-Cal were last adjusted more than 20 years ago. Should the EMATA program be allowed to expire, critical funding that minimizes the gap between Medi-Cal reimbursement and the actual cost of services will be cut by more than half, which could result in reduction of services and even force the closure of air medical bases.

Rural areas

Reduction or elimination of air medical services will disproportionately impact rural areas that do not have immediate access to trauma centers and children’s hospitals throughout the state – including Valley Children’s Hospital - putting some of California’s most vulnerable residents at risk.

“In rural areas, emergency helicopters play a vital role in EMS and our ability to get the most critical patients to a hospital in time to save them. Traffic accidents, in places like the roads to Yosemite National Park, present a unique challenge to us, where we are a long way from a trauma center,” said Bill Caldera, EMT-P and chief operations officer, Tuolumne County Ambulance Service. “A $4 fee on moving violations seems like a small price to continue paying to ensure we do not lose access to these lifesaving services.”

Air ambulances also play a critical role in transferring patients from rural and community hospitals to receive trauma care or specialized treatment they may not have access to in their area.

“Access to emergency air transport can mean the difference between life and death for trauma patients, or someone suffering a stroke or cardiac event. For these medical conditions, a few minutes of time can make all the difference,” said Dr. Jim Hinsdale, San Jose trauma surgeon and former president of the California Medical Association. “Whether you are driving along the North Coast Highway, hiking the Sierras, ATV riding in the Mojave Desert, or simply caught behind gridlock traffic, having an emergency helicopter available can save valuable minutes, and maybe even your life.”

Several organizations support the extension of EMATA, including the California Children's Hospital Association, the California League of Cities, the California Fire Chiefs Association, the California Hospital Association, the Rural County Representatives of California, the California Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Save Our Air Medical Resources (SOAR), and others.

Proponents are asking the Legislature to extend the fee to protect this vital funding.