Hartford Hospital’s Life Star Off Critical List — For Now
FOCUS ON HOSPITALS
By Becky Bergman
March 22, 2010
A year after its own life-and-death struggle, the helicopter program at the Hartford Hospital is busy saving lives and making friends. However, like the patients it rushes from crash scenes and trauma sites, Life Star is never far from death’s door.
The Life Star Helicopter program took flight in 1985, an idea developed by Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, who headed up the trauma center at Hartford Hospital 24 years ago and still works and teaches there.
Life Star is the state’s only critical care medical transport service; it operates two American Eurocopter BK-117 twin-engine helicopters stationed at Hartford Hospital and Backus Hospital in Norwich. Hospital officials added the second copter in 1999 and recently swapped out one of its leased aircrafts for a new one that it now owns.
Now the program would like to add a third rescue helicopter, a tribute to both the expanding need for service and to stabilized funding sources. “We’re continuously assessing our equipment and updating our services as needed,” said Dr. Kenneth Robinson, director of Hartford Hospital’s emergency department.
The state’s budget crisis threatened to ground Life Star last year when Gov. M. Jodi Rell recommended slashing the program’s $1.4 million subsidy funding. If the funding cut had gone through as proposed, Life Star would have lost roughly 20 percent of its budget, put one of its two helicopters out of commission and served 40 percent fewer patients this year.
“The state was very gracious to realize we are a valuable resource with the helicopter service and the community outreach programs we offer,” said Robinson. “They saw how difficult it is for us to break even and agreed to help us.”
Without the state’s subsidy, there would be no Life Star unless Connecticut officials provided it, according to hospital officials.
About 80 percent of Life Star’s $7 million annual budget is covered by some form of insurance, with roughly 15 percent of the patients paying on their own. The average Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement is half the $8,000 fee it cost per transport. Life Star also does not charge other hospitals for its service.
Robinson said it’s almost impossible to generate more revenue for the program because the rates are set by the state and allow for small increases each year for inflation.
The state’s subsidy helps keep an operating shortfall to about $120,000 a year, said Robinson.
“The opponents made it sound like the cut would kill the Life Star program. We didn’t see this as a mortal blow to the hospital,” said Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management. “The hospital could have found a way to make up the savings elsewhere.”
Beckham said the state has no plans to reduce the program’s funding as part of budget planning for the 2010 or 2011 fiscal years.
Life Star has transported more than 20,000 patients to hospitals in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and parts of New York. Calls generally come from emergency medical workers and hospital officials that need to relocate patients. The majority of calls — about 60 percent — come from accident scenes and intra-hospital transports. The remaining 40 percent come from cardiac patients, pediatric and other urgent care needs.
Life Star flies an average of four times a day and has as many as 12 calls in 24 hours. The program needs — and will explore this year — a third helicopter, said Robinson. The group does not reject any calls unless weather conditions make it impossible to permit a safe flight.
The 41-foot helicopter doubles as a mini-intensive care unit that allows its staff to begin treating a patient immediately with the same equipment and medications found in a hospital emergency room, including a respirator and other tools to revive patients in cardiac arrest, said Robinson.
The helicopter staff includes about 50 medical professionals — registered nurses, respiratory therapists, pilots, mechanics, communication specialists and hospital officials — who work solely for the program.
Kurt Farmer, a 29-year-old paper mill worker, credits Life Star with saving his life last year after his car careened off the road and crashed into a tree at 50 miles per hour. He suffered multiple fractures to his spine, neck, legs and arms and required several plates and metal rods to repair the damage.
It took rescue workers more than four hours to free Farmer from his mangled car, which crashed about a hundred yards from his home in Voluntown. It would have taken emergency crews more than an hour to drive the distance between the crash site and the nearest trauma center.
Eighteen minutes after his rescue, Farmer was wheeled into Hartford Hospital’s trauma center 50 miles away.
During his 10-day stint in the hospital, Farmer learned his wife was pregnant. His son will turn six months old as the one-year anniversary of the accident approaches. “I’m blessed to have the chance to know my son,” said Farmer. “I can’t imagine anyone else going through what I did and not having Life Star.”
The program also works directly with local police agencies to help coordinate toy drives and it offers bicycle helmet safety courses to children and mock drunk driving crash rescues for teens as part of its prom promise initiative.
Founded in 1854, Hartford Hospital is one of the largest teaching hospitals and tertiary care centers in the region. The 867-bed regional referral center has more than 900 physicians and dentists within 17 departments. On average, the hospital discharges more than 39,000 patients, reports 80,000 emergency department visits and delivers close to 4,000 babies annually.