Bipartisan support for socialized medicine at 2,000 feet, program unique to Maryland
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, Md. (ABC7) – The State of Maryland has borne witness to centuries of history, but in the medical world, none might be as integral as March 19, 1970.
On that date, while Richard Nixon oversaw a nation divided by the Vietnam War, the Maryland State Police became the first civilian agency to airlift a critically injured trauma patient by helicopter. Previously, the measure had only been used on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam.
In partnership with Dr. R. Adams Cowley, founder of the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, the experiment soon proved that with proper staffing, training, equipment and speed, severely wounded patients often had a second chance at life. And so became the Maryland State Police's Aviation Command, which to date has flown more 180,000 missions and transported more than 120,000 patients.
Today, the Aviation Command consists of around 200 pilots, trooper paramedics, mechanics and administrative personnel. It operates 10 Agusta Westland AW139 helicopters, which are housed in seven hangars strategically placed across the state to ensure a response time of no more than 20 minutes, once the chopper is airborne.
Trooper 1 (Baltimore - Martin State Airport), Trooper 2 (Washington - Joint Base Andrews), Trooper 3 (Frederick - Frederick Municipal Airport), Trooper 4 (Salisbury - Salisbury Airport), Trooper 5 (Cumberland - Cumberland Regional Airport), Trooper 6 (Easton - Easton Airport) and Trooper 7 (Southern Maryland - St. Mary's Airport).
On a sunny Tuesday morning at Joint Base Andrews, where Trooper 2 is housed, Sgt. Adam Davies greeted ABC7 with a warm smile. Davies, who joined the Maryland State Police shortly after 9-11, transferred to the Aviation Command four years ago. He is a both a sworn trooper and a fully certified paramedic.
“There’s no other program exactly like ours. We’re world renowned. We’re the only ones that do things the way we do," Sgt. Davies said with a proud look upon his face. “It’s an amazing thing.”
The Aviation Command responds to five types of missions: medevac, law enforcement aerial assistance, search and rescue, homeland security surveys, and disaster assessment. However, the vast majority of missions, 85 percent to be exact, center on treating injured people.
“We respond to a lot of car crashes, but we also handle shootings, stabbings, we fly heart attack patients, stroke patients," Sgt. Davies added.
When a local fire or police department arrives at emergency scene, the incident commander evaluates the situation. If a victim appears to be critically injured, and is not close to a level one trauma center, the incident commander will radio for the Maryland State Police’s Aviation Command. Using highly-advanced GPS technology, the Aviation Command’s dispatch center then assigns the closest helicopter to the call.
On the Tuesday ABC7 visited Trooper 2, it received a mission for a 67-year-old man who had fallen from a tall tree in Anne Arundel County. The phone rang, the information was relayed, and within 10 minutes, two pilots and two paramedics had left the ground; their $12 million flying hospital arriving on scene shortly thereafter.
“It affords patients such an increased chance of survival and of recovery," Sgt. Davies remarked. "There are no red lights or traffic in the air."
Last year, ‘7 On Your Side’ called attention to the exorbitant cost of many private medevac services in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania. In some cases, a short, yet critical chopper ride can strap patients with a bill of up to $55,000, often not covered in full by health insurance.
However, a ride in a Maryland State Police helicopter is free for all patients. Eighty percent of the Aviation Unit's $42 million annual operating budget is funded through a $13.50 cent tax paid when Marylanders register their vehicle each year. The remaining 20 percent (roughly $8.4 million) comes from the Maryland State Police's general fund.
“The benefit of our program is you’re never going to receive a bill from the state police, whether it be a medevac mission, a law enforcement mission, a search and rescue, it doesn’t matter," Sgt. Davies added.
Although Delaware and New Jersey have similar, but much less robust government run medevac programs, most states have nothing to speak of. That begs the questions: Why is Maryland in a league of its own? Sgt. Davies contends funding is a serious obstacle, but there may also be a lack of vision, a key ingredient fostered by Dr. Cowley, now 47 years ago.
“I think the startup is an incursion for most states. We’ve been doing it so well, and for so long, it just works for us," Sgt. Davies remarked.
There are a few exceptions to the no-pay rule. For example, private medevac companies often transfer patients from hospital-to-hospital in Maryland, and at a hefty cost. Additionally, in extremely rare cases, mutual aid might be requested from an outside agency should the Aviation Unit already be bogged down with active missions. Still, a critically injured patient's chance of getting a free, socialized medevac, is greatly in their favor, and for good reason.
“There are a lot of times where a family member will ask if we can just take them by ambulance because they don’t have insurance or can’t afford a pricey medical bill. It certainly assures them to hear there won't be a bill and that they don’t need to worry about it," Sgt. Davies stated. "I have to say, it’s a pretty amazing job."