Manitoba

Private carriers to replace Manitoba's Lifeflight planes

The Manitoba government is formally handing over the aircraft used in its air ambulance service to the private sector, despite calls from doctors who threatened to walk out if the service is privatized. 

Staffing struggles contributed to move to private sector, province says

The Manitoba government will replace the use of its Citation jets with private carriers as early as this month. (CBC)

The Manitoba government is further privatizing its air ambulance service, the province revealed on Thursday, despite calls from doctors who threatened to walk out if Lifeflight is handed to the private sector. 

Private carriers will replace Manitoba's Lifeflight planes due to staffing challenges, the government said. 

"The province is replacing the use of its Citation jets with private carriers as early as later this month to ensure continuity of these important health transportation services for Manitobans," a news release said. 

A provincial spokesperson did not clarify exactly what the province's involvement in operating the air ambulance service will be going forward, saying only that "the provincially run program will continue with private aircraft."

No mention was made of which private carriers will be involved in delivering patients, or when they would start.

Patient safety neglected: MGEU

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union said it's unhappy with the change — and that its members have been left in the dark on what it means for them.

"It is absolutely shameful that this government would not listen to the doctors, the nurses, the pilots and the maintenance staff who have all, for some months now, been telling them that this is a risky move," president Michelle Gawronsky told reporters.

A letter condemning the push to privatization 16 physicians wrote last year said the decision could undermine patient safety by putting pressure on crews to take risks for the sake of profits, and harm northern communities whose runways don't meet national standards for private carriers.

"Lifeflight has many advantages, including a highly experienced staff, a clean safety record with no serious injuries, incidents or fatalities." Gawronsky said. "Shame on the government for ignoring the serious safety concerns."

Dr. Renate Singh, the service's medical director, said her colleagues are upset.

"The Lifeflight physicians are shocked by this announcement. We will be continuing our discussions with [Doctors] MB over the days to come," she wrote in a message. "At present, our future with this program is uncertain." 

The province did not make a minister available to answer questions.

The inside of a Lifeflight air ambulance. 'This is a critical life-saving service for rural and remote northern communities that do not have immediate access to a hospital,' MGEU said in a statement Thursday. (Government of Manitoba)

The government said the move is necessary because of the changing complement of specialized employees needed to ensure the safe operation of the service.

Gawronsky said the departure of a few mechanics, by retirement or resignation, in the coming weeks is the government's rationale for grounding its two Citation jets.

These woes are entirely the government's fault, she argued.

"When the staffing becomes a challenge, under the cloud of uncertainty, they use this crisis now to create the reasons why they have to privatize," Gawronsky said. "They are the ones that have actually caused a recruitment and retention problem."

They've allowed the service to deteriorate to such a point that they now have to retire these jets- NDP Leader Wab Kinew

Lifeflight's staffing issues began last July, when the province issued a request for proposals to explore privatizing its air ambulance and general transport services.

At the time, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler called it "smart shopping."

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

The province used private carriers for 50 per cent of its air ambulance flights last year. 

Staffing concerns

The service has struggled in recent months to secure enough staffing to keep the ambulance flights going.

The vacancies prompted physicians in Swan River, Man., which is served by Lifeflight, to raise concerns about "profound and dangerous effects" on patient safety earlier this year.

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.

The province promised in December to hire two more pilots for the service. It also pledged $750,000 to maintain the service's two Citation jets — the jets it said Thursday will now be replaced by private carriers.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the staffing gaps is a problem of the government's making.

"They've allowed the service to deteriorate to such a point that they now have to retire these jets and they're going to replace it with private operation," he said.

"When there's a profit motive involved, maybe the private carrier won't fly when it's not profitable to do so."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont isn't swayed by the government saying that most other provinces run a privately-operated air ambulance service.

"The PCs have bungled this file. Pilots started to bail after the PCs threatened to privatize, destabilizing the service," Lamont said in a statement. It's "sheer incompetence."

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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