ELLICOTT - Starflight leaders unveiled their two new helicopters Monday, saying the more than $3 million acquisition - borne by county taxpayers - will pay for itself and help the agency become self-sufficient.
The two new red, twin-engine MD 900 Explorer helicopters landed in front of a commercial hangar at Chautauqua County Airport outside Jamestown early Monday, where a crowd awaited them.
The aircraft will allow Starflight to do something it has never been able to before - tap into the Medicare system for reimbursement when Medicare-eligible patients are transported to and from medical centers throughout the region.
Until now, Starflight has operated military surplus vehicles, earning it the status of a public service provider ineligible for Medicare reimbursement payments. Now, Starflight can qualify as a commercial provider, making it eligible for those payments from Medicare.
"We wanted to get helicopters that had a different FAA certification ... so we could make Starflight more self-sufficient," said Ron Hasson, operations manager for Alstar Ambulance and Transportation Services, which runs Starflight.
The extra revenue, Hasson explained, will help Starflight operate independently without a need for taxpayer subsidies.
"As opposed to relying on funds from foundations ... as well as taxpayers from Chautauqua County," Hasson said, "the goal is to make this financially self-sufficient."
Starflight is a joint operation between the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office and WCA Services Corp. responsible for an area of more than 15,000 square miles in the Southern Tier.
Leading the charge for new Starflight helicopters last October, and at the airport Monday to welcome the new helicopters to Starflight's fleet, was County Sheriff Joe Gerace.
In October, Gerace defended Starflight against concerns that medical evacuation services are being duplicated in the region and that the $3 million acquisition was an unnecessary expense for Chautauqua County taxpayers. Though the various medical evacuation services do lend assistance to each other at times, Gerace explained, Starflight remains the primary provider for Chautauqua County.
"We can get (patients) to an appropriate trauma center much quicker and efficiently," Gerace said of the Starflight program. "That's been proven by the thousands of flights we've taken and the hundreds of people who have been saved."
The helicopters will cost the county more than $300,000 a year in debt service, but they will more than pay for themselves, County Executive Greg Edwards said Monday.
"It takes $364,000 away from county taxpayers and pays for itself. That's the key thing that makes this a tremendous win," Edwards said. "It keeps an essential service and it eliminates a significant expense for taxpayers.''
In November 2007, Starflight retired one of its two Hueys, leaving it with only one helicopter - a UH1H that remains in operation. According to Gerace, the vehicle's fate remains to be seen since it has enormous potential in a variety of public safety arenas.
"It's a tremendously solid helicopter. It has tremendous utility. But it costs a lot to operate," Gerace said.
In addition to extra revenue for Starflight, the new helicopters could also improve services for patients. News reports out of Buffalo indicate Starflight's old single-engine helicopters weren't able to land at the helipad built in recent years at Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo, a premier facility for children. Instead, helicopters reportedly had to land at a parking lot several miles away and the patients had to then be transferred to an ambulance.
According to the news reports, Starflight's new twin-engine helicopters should be able to land at the helipad, eliminating the additional ambulance trip for patients.