Lifesaver helicopter company, owned by the Denver-based Air Methods Corporation, will continue its emergency flight services in the county, even after the company closed a base in Birmingham last week, a spokeswoman said. The closure is part of a larger plan to strategically keep bases near rural areas — places where the need for emergency care and quick response is greatest due to the distances from trauma centers and the shrinking medical services there, some rural health experts say.
Tracey Budz, director of corporate communications for Air Methods, said the company does not expect any of its Alabama operations to be affected by the Sept. 3 closure of the Birmingham base.
"Lifesaver 2 is based in Rainbow City and part of its coverage is Calhoun County and the Anniston-Oxford metro area, so we don't anticipate the Birmingham closure will have an effect on that county," Budz said.
Budz said the Birmingham base was closed due to its lack of use. Budz said most potential patients for that base live in urban areas and can use ground transport to relatively close medical facilities. She said it makes more sense for Lifesaver to locate bases outside of Birmingham in more rural areas, which are farther from hospitals.
"One of the reasons air medical (services) has proven to improve patient outcomes is because it decreases the time it takes to get a person who has had a trauma, such as a car or farming accident, to a trauma center," Budz said. "When transports originate from communities outside of Birmingham, it makes sense to locate the aircraft closer to those patients and the referring facility rather than the receiving facility."
In keeping with that position, Lifesaver will open a base in Tuscaloosa this fall to better serve more rural patients on that side of the state, Budz said. Budz noted that Lifesaver once had a base atop Regional Medical Center in Anniston, but moved it to Rainbow City in 2008 to better serve rural areas.
Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, said rural areas of the state are in great need of emergency flight services.
"It's harder to get notification out and then get people to the scene of an accident," Quinney said of rural areas.
Data on vehicle crash fatalities, which are the types of incidents that mainly require helicopter assistance, indicate rural areas of the state need such services more so that urban areas.
According to Rural Health Association statistics based on death certificate records from the Alabama Department of Public Health, of the state's 55 rural counties, 35 have more than double the national rate of vehicle fatalities on average. Another 12 counties have more than three times the national rate. The national rate is 11.5 vehicle deaths per 100,000 people. Calhoun County's vehicle death rate is 15.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
"It seems that the more rural the county, the higher the death rate," Quinney said.
Quinney said that rural residents in the state have seen their choices decrease in recent years.
Hospitals in Alabama rural areas have been cutting services or outright closing in recent years due to declining revenue and a lack of primary care physicians willing to move there. Nearby Randolph Medical Center closed in April 2011. Regional Medical Center in Anniston has attempted to address the lack of medical services in surrounding rural areas by opening health clinics in Roanoke and Piedmont and buying Jacksonville Medical Center in December.
Phillip Winkles, chief of Piedmont Emergency Medical Services, said helicopter emergency services from Lifesaver are extremely important for the Piedmont area.
"Based on our geography and our relative distance from a trauma center, they're imperative," Winkles said.
Johnny Warren, owner of Anniston Emergency Medical Services, said that hypothetically, it would be a significant issue if the area lost emergency helicopter services. Still, Warren thought other emergency services in the area could pick up the slack.
"If we didn't have access to one, we'll use ground ambulance," Warren said.
Winkles said patients with traumatic injuries are typically flown to UAB in Birmingham and not RMC or Stringfellow Medical Center in Anniston because UAB is capable of providing just about any kind of treatment.
"I'm not knocking any of the hospitals around here ... but for instance the only burn center in the state is at UAB," Winkles said.
Winkles said it's better to send a trauma patient to the place that can best help first, helping them avoid two ambulance bills and delayed care.
Winkles said he did not expect the Livesaver Birmingham closing to affect the county, especially because another helicopter company, Air Evac Lifeteam, also covers part of the area. Air Evac, based in O'Fallon, Mo., has a base in Carrollton, Ga.
Julie Heavrin, public relations manager for Air Evac, said covering rural areas is her company's mission.
"There's a need because a lot of smaller rural hospitals are closing or not offering specialized services that they offered in the past," Heavrin said. "So there is a greater need to get those rural areas the specialty care they need."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.