The FAA announced September 7 that it would launch an investigation into the Lee County, Fla. MedStar helicopter EMS program. MedStar is operated by the county’s Division of Public Safety and flies a Bell 430 and an MBB BO105. Lee County abruptly shuttered MedStar, at the time it said temporarily, August 21 and terminated its pilots and top managers following reports of operational deficiencies and billing irregularities; however, the program had been under strain since the Aug. 17, 2009, crash of its Eurocopter EC145 near North Captiva Island en route to pick up a patient. The crew survived what amounted into a nighttime controlled flight into water, but the helicopter was destroyed. The NTSB faulted the pilot for failure to manage the descent power setting while the autopilot was engaged.
MedStar’s recent difficulties appear related to its attempts to meet federal requirements to put the replacement helicopter for the lost EC145, a used Bell 430, into operation and to certify that helicopter and its pilots for Part 135 operations. The FAA will investigate whether MedStar performed revenue flights without the proper pilot certifications. County managers have already admitted that Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers were billed improperly for some of those flights and informed the county commission that the county would be liable for more than $2.9 million worth of patient flights flown by the 430 since late last year.
MedStar’s alleged problems with the FAA started in late 2010 (when it first acquired the 430) and pertained to overall recordkeeping, maintenance and pilot training. At least some of these seem to be verified by MedStar’s own employees. In April, MedStar pilot Arnold Mcallister, then serving as an FAA-designated check airman, warned his superiors of delinquencies relating to flight training and company instructor qualifications.
In an August e-mail to county commissioners, deputy public safety director Kim Dickerson explained that billing for medevac flights ceased on May 29, 2012, because the program was not in compliance with its Part 135 certificate. Dickerson also noted that MedStar had improperly billed for $2.98 million worth of medevac flights and had incorrectly collected $320,586 for 79 flights. Dickerson informed the commissioners that MedStar had hired a consultant to suggest program restructuring that could include maintaining the current business model, entering into a private-public partnership or privatizing all or part of the MedStar program. Options will be presented at the county’s November management and planning session.