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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 29, 2010

Maui mayor proposes cutting helicopter air ambulance service

By Chris Hamilton
Maui News

WAILUKU Forced to make difficult budget decisions due to a dramatic drop in tax revenue collections, Mayor Charmaine Tavares has proposed to eliminate Maui County's only helicopter ambulance service, her staff said.

But as soon as the suggestion was made during last week's County Council Budget and Finance Committee hearings, it was met with strong opposition by council members and residents.

Transportation Department Director Don Medeiros said use of the helicopter had dropped by about 50 percent since a second fixed-wing airplane medical transport company began servicing the county's isles a few years ago. The helicopter doesn't handle as many transports between Maui County and Oahu hospitals as it used to and instead focuses more on trauma and rescue operations, Medeiros said.

The county is facing a $56 million budget gap for services and programs in fiscal year 2011, which could be increased by another $17.5 million if the Legislature decides to take the county's share of the transient accommodations tax, or hotel tax, as the state battles its own budget woes.

Medeiros presented a plan Tuesday to erase the county's $672,215 half of the funding for the 6-year-old helicopter ambulance program. The state Department of Health pays for the rest of the $1.2 million annual service.

A private company, American Medical Response, which provides all road ambulances in the county, contracts Pacific Helicopters for the air ambulance program and supplies the onboard medics.

Since the county is a mixture of remote islands, with mountainous, watery and forested regions, a medical transport helicopter is essential, said American Medical Response Maui Manager Curt Morimoto. The helicopter regularly shaves minutes, and maybe much more time, in an endless variety of life-threatening situations, he said.

"I have heard from no one from the public thus far say, 'You cannot afford it,' " said County Council Vice Chairman Mike Molina. "You can't put a price on anyone's life.

"I'm in favor of finding a way to restoring funds. At this point, I would consider using the emergency fund. There's $2 million in it. Of course, the other option is to raise taxes. It's a tough decision to make in these tough economic times."

The County Council has until May 31 to come up with changes it wants in the mayor's budget proposal. Members must approve a balanced budget that takes effect July 1.

The total county Transportation Department yearly budget is $14 million, with most of it going toward operating Maui Bus and social service transit. It's already all subsidized, Medeiros said, so there's really nothing else to snip away at.

He also noted that Oahu and Kauai get along without a helicopter ambulance. And the Big Island abandoned its helicopter ambulance program recently after less than a year in action.

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