Manitoba Lifeflight doctors urge province to restore service

The doctors who work for the Manitoba air ambulance service say the province must hire more pilots and fund annually required training for pilots, or they'll stop working on the private planes.

Group warns they'll stop working on private planes on Jan. 1 if no action taken

Manitoba Lifeflight doctors want the province to hire and train pilots to maintain its public service. (CBC)

The doctors who work for the Manitoba air ambulance service say the province must hire more pilots and fund annually required training for pilots, or they'll stop working on the private planes.

The physicians of Lifeflight Manitoba Air Ambulance sent an email to Manitoba Health on Nov. 26, warning they'll stop working on private medevac planes come Jan. 1 if their concerns aren't addressed.

"If you've got the medical doctors that are refusing to go out, that should be a red flag for everyone that is out there: why are they refusing to go, what are the issues? And hopefully the government is listening to that," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU), which represents Lifeflight nurses, clerical staff, pilots and maintenance crew. 

In a statement, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he was "disappointed" with the letter, "which came only a few weeks after constructive conversations had occurred between our government and Lifeflight physicians. We anticipated further discussion with the doctors on air ambulance services, not an ultimatum."

The group of 16 emergency specialist doctors rotate through the Lifeflight air ambulance on-call schedule. A doctor and an emergency specialist nurse staff the medically equipped planes to bring critically ill patients to Winnipeg.

The group of physicians have publicly and emphatically expressed collective 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 should things change for financial reasons.

According to the province, the Lifeflight jet 'was not available' for 51% of all cases in 2017/2018, resulting in the use of private carriers.

The MGEU said that's because of the province's failure to hire more pilots.

Of the 12 pilot positions with Manitoba Government Air Services' Lifeflight service, seven positions are filled, but only five pilots are currently working, said MGEU spokesperson Jodee Mason. 

The province has two 'fully operational' Cessnas for the emergency calls, "but there's not enough pilots to keep them going," she said.

The province has not yet responded to CBC's request about whether it plans to hire more pilots or staff vacant positions.

In a letter of response to the doctors dated November 28, 2018, Health Minister Cameron Friesen acknowledged the physicians had offered to reconsider their position "if funding is secured for pilot recurrent training and the hiring of two additional pilots."

"This is an inaccurate characterization of the situation,' he wrote. "We believe there is more to discuss about the current delivery model for which you advocate."

He expressed a willingness to re-engage with the doctors and hear their perspectives and proposed alternatives in order to "take into account the views of the doctors who deliver this important service."

The physicians have previously threatened to stop working on the medevacs if the service is privatized, also opposing what they say will be reduced service for northern communities whose runways won't meet national standards for private carriers. 

"We want to reiterate that no decisions about the Lifeflight RFP process have been made. We will not be concluding the RFP process for air ambulance services for some time and therefore, discussions on outcomes regarding Lifeflight are speculative and premature," wrote Friesen. 

"We look forward to further conversations with the Lifeflight physicians in the near future."

The doctors who work for the Manitoba air ambulance service say the province must hire more pilots and fund annually required training for pilots, or they'll stop working on the private planes. 1:27