Air transport is a vital service in rural communities across the nation. Having quick access to services that are found in large, specialized facilities can mean the difference between life and death. In Sweetwater County in particular, the nearest tertiary care centers (offering complex and specialized services, primarily found in metropolitan areas) are located in the Salt Lake City area over 180 miles away. With the addition of inclement weather, sometimes air transport is the only way to get a patient to life-saving care.
Recently, Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County (MHSC) signed a preferred vendor contract with AirMed transport services, based out of University of Utah Healthcare (UUHC). This comes after they announced in 2013 that they had become the very first affiliated hospital of the University of Utah. The recent air transport announcement has caused some confusion in the community so we sat down with Jerry Klein, CEO, and Gary Collins, PR & Marketing Director, of Memorial Hospital to discuss the current changes and also the history of air transport in the region.
Who is AirMed and what is their history in Sweetwater County?
AirMed, University of Utah Healthcare’s air medical transport program, serves the intermountain west – one of the largest geographical areas of any flight program in the nation. They have seven bases in the region, Rock Springs being one of them. They are CAMTS accredited, the gold standard for air medical transport. UUHC provides Sweetwater County with access to a level 1 trauma center and the only academic medical center in the region, the University of Utah.
As for Sweetwater County, AirMed has had a committed fixed-wing airplane at Rock Springs-Sweetwater County airport for over 12 years. With the new affiliation between MHSC and UUHC and seeing increased competition in air transport services in the areas they serve, AirMed made the decision to increase their commitment to Sweetwater County by having both a fixed-wing airplane and a rotor (helicopter) on-site 365 days a year. This will go into effect on July 1.
AirMed has also hired three local employees to staff the Rock Springs base. They are all local paramedics who already have experience working within the community and live in the area.
Does this contract with AirMed mean that Guardian Flight can no longer serve Sweetwater County?
Absolutely not. The only change that this contract brings is that AirMed will have helicopter pad occupancy. The hospital allowed Guardian Flight keep their rotor on the pad out of convenience. There was never a contract or an obligation to the hospital. Prior to that, and also after July 1, Guardian will have their helicopter out at the airport ready to transport. Guardian Flight is a For-Profit organization in that they can set up their services anywhere they want. They can still transport from Memorial Hospital and can still serve Sweetwater County. The hospital does not decide the business of Guardian Flight. Our staff has worked well with their team and they have brought a good service to the area in the last few years. Healthy competition in an industry can be a good thing. It opens up services and options and it also creates competitive pricing. Now Sweetwater County has TWO air transport teams committed to their care.
Will Sweetwater County patients have a choice in where they are transported to, or will AirMed only transport to the University of Utah since they are based there?
As stated before, AirMed has already served Sweetwater County for over 12 years. Patients have had the choice in the past, they have the choice now, and they will have the choice after July 1 – there has been no change in that. There are several great facilities located in the Salt Lake City region and we know our patients may have a preference. AirMed will transport to the patient’s facility of choice upon request.
As a County hospital, can changes such as this be decided solely by the hospital and without input from the City, County, community, etc.? Is that a legal issue?
The governance structure of the hospital is very complicated. By name, we are Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County. A major difference between MHSC and other “County” hospitals is that we do not have the ability to levy tax to the community.
After the County appoints the hospital’s Board of Trustees, the hospital runs independently of any other organization. Our staff is not County-employed; they do not get County benefits, etc. We do request each year from the County to be reimbursed for the Charity Care and Title XXV costs that we cover, but it is up to the discretion of the County Commissioners to reimburse us for any amount. The current commissioners have been generous to work with us, but that amount is still equal to less than 1% of the hospital’s revenue.
99% of the hospital’s funding is directly from our own operations. Therefore, taxpayer money is not used to fund the operations of the hospital.
One exception is optional tax, such as the Special Purpose Tax (6th penny tax), which the citizens vote on to pay for specific projects. We are very grateful to have the community support the Medical Office Building & Regional Cancer Center in the last election. That money, received through the County as it is collected, is put directly towards the infrastructure of that building. It cannot be used for operations or soft goods (furniture, equipment, etc.)
In short, decisions and contracts such as this are decided upon by the CEO and Board of Trustees of the hospital. There is no legality in question as the hospital is run as an independent organization, funded by their own operations.
What does the future look like for air transport in Sweetwater County?
We can only speculate, but adding another rotor 365 days a year, 7 days a week, and 24 hours a day can only be a positive for Sweetwater County and the whole region that we serve. We will be the ONLY County in Wyoming that has a fixed-wing airplane and two helicopters serving the air transport needs of the patients here.
We appreciate that there are citizens that stay involved with the happenings of healthcare in our area. Your concern shows that you care about the health of the community just as much as we do.
We have a commitment and an obligation to the community to offer quality services and providers, but also increase services and specialties to the area. AirMed is another example of the benefits that have come from our affiliation with the University of Utah. Although they have been familiar with us for over 12 years by transporting patients to all of the facilities in the Salt Lake City region, this increase in service has not only brought another helicopter, but it has brought 3 more jobs to the area and has increased overall the healthcare services that are available in Sweetwater County.
If there are ever any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us or stop by. We have been a community partner since our inception almost 125 years ago and we remain committed to being involved in any way that we can. We have been planning a Community Appreciation Day on July 23, after we open up the regional cancer center. I hope that everyone can join.
We appreciate your support in our mission of being the provider of choice in Sweetwater County and the region. Thank you.
Visit Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County on Facebook or learn more about them on at SweetwaterMemorial.com.