North Georgia Helicopter War, Part 1

11:30 PM, May 24, 2010   |    comments
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Georgia's General Assembly has set aside $600,000 to subsidize one of Erlanger Medical Center's helicopters. The hospital is in Chattanooga, but serves many Northwest Georgians.

ATLANTA - Located just six miles from the state line, Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga is the closest and best hope for thousands of critically injured patients in Northwest Georgia.

No one denies the public Tennessee hospital helps save many Georgia lives.

But some are questioning why the Georgia General Assembly has set aside $600,000 in next year's state budget to subsidize one of Erlanger's emergency medical helicopters.

Erlanger is the closest Level One Trauma Center to many in Northwest Georgia.

Georgians account for 30 percent of its trauma patients.

"Pain and suffering has no political or geographic boundaries," said Doug Fisher, Vice-President for Erlanger's Governmental and Corporate Affairs.

Many Georgians are flown to Chattanooga by one of the hospital's three medical helicopters.

It's even based in Calhoun, GA and staffed by a Georgia crew at no charge to Georgia taxpayers.

After objections from the State Senate, House members negotiated a last minute April 29 save for a budget appropriation of $600,000 to pay for a second Erlanger helicopter in North Georgia.

The hospital says it will be based in Northeast Georgia around Rabun and Habersham Counties.

Erlanger claims it needs the Georgia taxpayer money to make the second helicopter possible.

"It would be commercially, business wise, totally impossible to financially support a program like that without some form of government supplemental," said Erlanger's Fisher.

But a private company that already operates several medical helicopters in North Georgia disagrees.

"We were disappointed in the decision to allow money for a helicopter service in NW Georgia as we feel, compared to the rest of the state of Georgia, this area is currently adequately served," said a statement released by Air Methods.

"I covered that area without any subsidy whatsoever," said Ralph McDaniel of Marietta.

McDaniel used to own a medical helicopter company and is furious about the Erlanger deal.

He's especially upset that Georgia is not putting out bids for the new service to let private Georgia helicopter companies compete with Erlanger.

"I'm quite confident that either of the other companies in the State of Georgia would gladly accept much less than $600,000 and put a helicopter wherever they like it," McDaniel said.

Some Northwest Georgia state lawmakers defend the Erlanger deal, like Sen. Don Thomas (R-Dalton), a longtime physician.

He says several smaller North Georgia hospitals have been requesting the additional chopper for a couple of years.

"Six-hundred-thousand sounds like a lot of money," Sen. Thomas said. "But in critical areas of medicine and equipment and helicopters, it's not all that much."

With more than $1 billion cut from the 2011 state budget and thousands of school teachers being laid off, McDaniel disagrees.

"Everywhere we turn we're seeing cuts and cuts and cuts and cuts," McDaniel said.

At 11Alive's request, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) issued a statement. He called Erlanger's North Georgia coverage "the difference between life and death."

"These funds are key to improving access to this critical care level one trauma center," Ralston's statement said.

Erlanger's Fisher also said the Chattanooga hospital lost $6.3 million in 2009 caring for Georgians.

Governor Sonny Perdue has until June 8 to approve the 2011 state budget passed by the legislature.

He also has line item veto power and can cut out individual expenditures.

The governor's office says he is aware of the controversy over the helicopter deal.

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