Airlift Northwest, which along with Life Flight Network airlifts critically ill and injured patients off the North Olympic Peninsula, will no longer accept memberships from any other medical air transport agencies.
That could make a medical airlift highly expensive.
Starting March 25, Airlift Northwest will no longer provide reciprocity for others in the same business such as Air St. Luke’s, Care Flight and Life Flight Network, officials said.
Under the terms of the reciprocal agreement, a patient with membership in any medical air transport organization was covered no matter which company actually performed the airlift, officials said.
Airlift and Life Flight are the only two air medical organizations that operate in Jefferson and Clallam counties, although there have been rare instances in which first responders have called in help from the Coast Guard and Navy, said Chief Jim Walkowski of East Jefferson Fire Rescue.
Before the change, first responders could call either of the two companies if an airlift was needed (and would usually use the one that would arrive first), but the change now complicates the process, because if a person is insured by one and not the other and can’t tell a first responder that, they could potentially have to pay high out-of-pocket fees for the transport, Walkowski said.
“Our concerns are solely what is best for patient care,” he said.
“Previously, if we have to medevac somebody out, we want the closest, quickest resource …We like to make our decisions based off of what is the closest, appropriate transport resource, as opposed to what company it’s coming from.
“Unfortunately, with what’s going on, the potential is there for that to not have a lot of clarity.”
Airlift is under the umbrella of University of Washington (UW) Medicine.
“Airlift Northwest has been serving the residents of Jefferson and Clallam counties for nearly 40 years by transporting patients 24/7 in their time of need,” said Susan Greg, media relations director for UW medicine.
“After reviewing our business model and current industry trends, we have decided to discontinue our reciprocity agreements with other air transport programs,” she continued.
“Airlift Northwest remains committed to serving these communities and working with local first responders to provide life-saving medical transport.”
Life Flight will continue to fly Airlift patients through their current membership cycle, and will allow them to sign up for a Life Flight membership retroactively, so patients can avoid transportation fees associated with medical airlifts, said Jake Dalstra, regional vice-president for Life Flight Network.
“Our interpretation is that medical programs can and should reciprocate,” Dalstra said. “It’s just unfortunate that [Airlift] chose to do this.
“From our prospective, we would be willing to reciprocate with them again at any time they would like to do that again.
“We will still honor their memberships, so if we fly an Airlift member, we will ask that person to sign up for our membership and retroactively, we will take care of that.”
A yearly membership for Airlift for one household is $79 and members must have separate medical insurance, according to Airlift’s website.
A yearly membership for Life Flight for one household is $69 and members do not need separate insurance, Dalstra said.
Airlift transported about 290 patients from Jefferson and Clallam counties in 2019 and so far has completed 39 flights between Dec. 1, 2019, and Feb. 17, Greg said.
Lifeflight has one helicopter based in Coupeville that serves Jefferson County and one in Port Angeles that serves Clallam County, and each averages about one flight per day, Dalstra said.
First responders are focused on what is best for the patient, Walkowski said.
“We’ve been very clear to the air carriers from the county chiefs level that we have to make sure that decisions made do not impact patient care,” Walkowski said.
“That’s the number one priority, not necessarily adhering to some company’s corporate needs.”
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected].