Manitoba

Lifeflight solely using private planes this weekend as distressed pilots given time off

Manitoba's air ambulance program is being run entirely with private carriers this weekend, in a sneak peek at what's to come.

Manitoba exclusively using private carriers this weekend to fill service gap, transition will become permanent

Manitoba's air ambulance program will be run entirely with private aircraft this weekend. The transition may become permanent as early as late June. (CBC)

Manitoba's air ambulance program is being run entirely with private carriers this weekend, as publicly-funded pilots are given time off after learning their jobs are in jeopardy.

The provincially-run Manitoba Government Air Services offered Lifeflight's pilots a three-day leave, which began today, after they were informed on Thursday they may not be needed once the province uses private aircraft instead, said Dr. Renate Singh, medical director for the program.

The pilots have been in distress ever since, Singh said.

"They've been given a rest period because they're traumatized."

Private carriers becoming permanent

The province explained vaguely on Friday it offered leave to the pilots "in consideration of staff members." Air ambulance service will continue this weekend with private aircraft, which already does half of Lifeflight's travels.

The balance of trips still conducted with government-owned aircraft will be turned over to private carriers as early as this month, the government announced on Thursday. The province says challenges in staffing the publicly-owned aircraft are behind the move.

It isn't known if Lifeflight's pilots will work with the new carriers.

"They're defeated, they know that they're going to be losing their jobs," Singh said of the nearly 10 pilots.

Despite months of uncertainty, pilots stayed with Lifeflight because they believe in going to remote communities and doing the work no one else is, Singh said.

"The Lifeflight pilots are the backbone of our program, where I would say the nurses are the heart," she said.

"Taking them away from us in a way that I can only compare to an amputation was something that was just massively traumatic and upsetting."

The pilots whose jobs are at risk with the move to private carriers are in distress, Dr. Renate Singh, Lifeflight's medical director, said. (CBC)

The government is further privatizing its air ambulances, despite calls from physicians who threatened to walkout if Lifeflight is handed to the private sector.

Most other provinces already have privately run air ambulance service, the Manitoba government said.

We really can't say if we'll ever recover any sense of normalcy after this- Dr. Renate Singh, Lifeflight's medical director

The speculation of privatization has hung over Lifeflight since the province began examining whether the air ambulance and general transport services are better off in private hands last summer.

While that process is ongoing, Manitoba is moving ahead with a provincially-run service, using entirely private aircraft.

No gaps in service: government

There are arrangements to ensure there is no gap in service during the transition, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said in a statement Friday.

Singh said putting the pilots "on rest right now is responsible and we're supportive of that."

"The plan is that our service will resume on Monday, since nobody's been laid off yet, but based on the fact that this has been traumatic for everybody involved, we really can't say if we'll ever recover any sense of normalcy after this."

Lifeflight provides air ambulance services to remote communities and inter-provincial trips for things like organ transplants and cardiac services.

Patient safety at risk

Physicians have condemned the plan for months. They argued that privatization could undermine patient safety by putting pressure on crews to take risks for the sake of profit, and impair northern communities whose runways are not appropriate for private carriers since they don't meet national standards.

Those concerns haven't subsided, Singh said.

"Our future with this program is uncertain," she said. "We will make a decision as to what our participation is going to look like going forward."

The staffing challenge the province cites is believed to be the departure of three mechanics, by retirement and resignation. "I believe that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Singh said.

The service has struggled in recent months to secure enough staffing.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union argued on Thursday that employees cannot be blamed for looking elsewhere when their jobs are uncertain.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen has insisted in the past that privatization would not go forward if the new firm is not cost-effective and doesn't maintain existing safety standards.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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