STARS' reliance on lottery for funding a gamble, critic says

For more than 30 years, Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) has transported seriously sick and injured patients to hospital, helping to save their lives. Now, it seems as though STARS itself is fighting for its own life.

Head of ground paramedics' union says air ambulance service should be fully funded by the province

Critics say STARS air ambulance, which is partially funded by a lottery, should instead be fully funded by the provincial government. (Courtesy STARS)

For more than 30 years, Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) has transported seriously sick and injured patients to hospital, helping to save their lives.

Now, STARS says it is in its own fight for survival brought on by challenging economic times.

This week the non-profit organization took out full-page newspaper advertisements asking Albertans to support the organization by purchasing tickets for its annual lottery.

"Today, we are facing some of the most challenging economic headwinds in STARS' history," the ad says.

"We know times are tough all over Alberta. But we also know the need to save lives never goes away."

Mike Parker is president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, the union which represents ground-based paramedics. He sees STARS as a vital service to Albertans — one that should not be relying on a lottery for one-third of its annual operating budget.

"Air ambulances in this province are a critical link in the survival and chain of survival," Parker told CBC's Edmonton AM Friday. "They shouldn't rely on charity to maintain that level of care."

STARS took out full-page newspaper ads Wednesday, asking for Albertans' continued support of their lottery. (CBC)

STARS has bases in Grande Prairie, Edmonton and Calgary. The newspaper ad says the funding from the lottery can fund one base for an entire year.

"This year — more than ever — we ask you to once again stand with us, so we can be there for patients who so urgently need us."

The plea is signed by STARS president and CEO Andrea Robertson.

Parker said relying on a lottery for such a significant part of a budget can be unpredictable — and that's unacceptable for such an essential service.

"Currently, in Alberta, we're all in tough shape," he said. "When you are relying on critical health-care components that are based on a funding model of donation, it puts us all at risk."

B.C. as an example?

Parker said STARS should become a fully-integrated service with the province, where all of its funding is secure and doesn't rely on Albertans buying lottery tickets.

He cited British Columbia as an example of a province with a fully-integrated air ambulance system — and though he couldn't speak to the system specifically, Parker said it's something worth looking at.

"They have sustainable and predictable funding," he said.

Parker said he hasn't received a whole lot of traction with the idea, but he said there needs to be a serious conversation about a provincially-funded STARS.

"They are an integrated part of our health care system," he said. "It is an expectation of Albertans that they will be a part of this system, and the funding model should match that."

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Alberta Health said: "STARS have been an invaluable partner for many years. The government will continue to work with them to support their vital role in Alberta's health system."