- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The University of Mississippi Medical Center plans to add two medical helicopters, doubling its current AirCare fleet, but some other medical helicopter operators are protesting the plan.

The medical center plans to place one helicopter in southwestern Mississippi, possible in McComb, and one to the north of Jackson, possibly in Starkville. The helicopters help UMMC to attract patients to Jackson, rather than see them go to large hospital in New Orleans or Memphis.

“To keep Mississippians in Mississippi, we found we needed to expand our helicopter program,” said medical center Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Wilson.

Wilson said the current helicopters based in Jackson and Meridian are missing 30 to 40 calls per month.

The College Board approved the two additional helicopters at its December meetings over the protests of the Hattiesburg-based Southeast Mississippi Air Ambulance District, which levies a half-mill property tax in nine counties around Hattiesburg to provide helicopter service. Residents of those nine counties aren’t billed when transported by district helicopter.



The district and Air Methods Corp., a private operator with helicopters in Brookhaven and Winona, said the medical center is improperly competing with other entities.

“There is no unmet need,” Armin Moeller, a lawyer for the district, told College Board trustees.

“If you’ve got enough private helicopter companies doing the job, why do you want to put a state helicopter there at state expense?” asked state Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg. He said UMMC has grown too far from its role as a hospital for the poorest and sickest patients, and said lawmakers should look seek to restrict expansion. But Polk he said he didn’t intend to propose such legislation in 2016.

Medical center leaders said the $55 million contract with Louisiana-based PHI, which runs until 2020, will be paid for with patient revenue, not tax dollars. They argue the AirCare fleet provides better service than other operators. Wilson said patients brought to the university’s hospitals generate valuable revenue once they arrive. While the helicopters take patients to other hospitals, about 85 percent of current flights come to Jackson.

The larger business overtones are clearest in southern Mississippi. The Hattiesburg district considered UMMC to run its service, but instead chose a consortium of Louisiana-based Ochsner Health System and helicopter operator Med-Trans Corp. Ochsner now plans to set up a second helicopter base at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in McComb in January. Ochsner also plans a third helicopter in Gulfport.

Norman Price, the administrator of the McComb hospital, said he initially approached the medical center about a helicopter. But trustees, concerned about the private competition issue in June, mandated another vote on acquiring new helicopters six months later. Unsure if UMMC would win approval, Price turned to Ochsner.

“University has just been encumbered by the fact that they have to go to the (board) to get permission to do anything,” Price said.

Price said he was looking for more than a helicopter. Instead, he was looking for a relationship to help provide more complex care in McComb. Ochsner runs or has alliances with 11 hospitals, including managing Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis. It’s now providing cancer treatment physicians in McComb, and Southwest Mississippi has a letter of intent for a larger alliance. That could funnel patients to New Orleans instead of Jackson.

“I believe there is a fear on behalf of UMC that referral patterns will change over time,” Moeller said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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