Manitoba

Province hiring more pilots for air ambulance service on verge of privatization

The Manitoba government is promising to hire two new pilots for an air ambulance service that may have to ground its private planes if doctors refuse to work on them.

It's not known whether 2 new pilots, $750,000 to maintain Citation jets will ease physicians' worries

The Manitoba government is promising to hire and train more pilots for its Lifeflight service, which may soon be privatized. (CBC)

The Manitoba government is promising to hire two new pilots for an air ambulance service that may have to ground its private planes if doctors refuse to work on them. 

The move will bolster the number of pilots in Manitoba's Lifeflight program from six to eight, the government said in a news release Thursday. It also promised $750,000 to maintain the province's two Citation jets.

The announcement comes just days after it became public that Lifeflight doctors threatened to stop working on private medevac planes as of Jan. 1, 2019, if the province doesn't hire more pilots and pay for the training they require annually.

A request for comment from the service's director on Thursday was not returned.

The province issued a request for proposals in July to privatize the entirety of Manitoba Air Service's Lifeflight air ambulance and general transport services.

The province is still seeking a private contractor for the service, but Health Minister Cameron Friesen has insisted the province will not go forward if the new firm is not cost-effective and doesn't maintain existing safety standards.

"Our government's top priority is ensuring that safety and service standards remain high, and these steps will assure Manitobans that those standards will remain in place while the request for proposals process proceeds," Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said in a statement.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents nurses, clerical staff, pilots and maintenance crew with the air ambulance, hopes this investment marks the first of many. Lifeflight needs 12 pilots to be properly staffed, said president Michelle Gawronsky.

"It's encouraging that the government is focusing their time and energy on investing in this service, instead of privatizing it," she said in an email. 

Resistance to privatization

The group of Lifeflight physicians have publicly expressed opposition to the privatization of air ambulance services, citing the "incident-free" record of Manitoba Government Air Services for more than 30 years, and concern for the safety of patients and care providers.

The physicians say the decision to privatize the entire service would harm northern communities whose runways don't meet national standards for private carriers. 

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the province's latest announcement doesn't alleviate the concerns of patients and doctors.

"The premier ignored their warnings for months and only after they were forced to publicly threaten to resign did he approve funding to keep the planes in service," he said in a statement.

"Instead of these superficial solutions, the premier must do the right thing and reverse his plan to privatize Lifeflight."

According to the province, the Lifeflight jets were not available for 51 per cent of all flights in 2017-18, resulting in the increasing use of private carriers. The province now has five companies licensed to provide air ambulance care.

A final decision on the request for proposals is not expected for some time, the government said Thursday.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Erin Brohman

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