STARS air ambulance paid back nearly $5M to Manitoba

The STARS air ambulance service has paid back almost $5 million to the Manitoba government in the last two years.

Air ambulance service was used less in the last 2 years than anticipated

The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society operates an air ambulance service in Manitoba (CBC)

The STARS air ambulance service has paid back almost $5 million to the Manitoba government in the last two years.

The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society gave the refund because of lower mission volume brought on by a four-month suspension in service, ordered by the province, due to patient safety concerns.

That resulted in lower fuel and maintenance costs, and STARS says it has managed the resources prudently.

In 2013, the service flew just 177 times — far short of the province's original estimate of 600 to 800 missions per year. STARS has flown 143 missions so far in the first four months of this year.

The service receives $10 million per year under its agreement with the province, but that cost may go down.

Helen Clark, COO of emergency response and patient transport with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, left, with Betty Lou Rock, vice-president of operations with STARS. The province transferred oversight of its agreement with STARS to the health authority in August last year. (CBC)
Additional refunds to the province may be in store if donations to STARS increase.

"When we are able to fund raise more, we are going to offset those dollars even more," Betty Lou Rock, STARS' vice-president of operations in Manitoba, told CBC News in an interview.

Its 2013-14 annual report shows that fundraising in Manitoba lags behind other provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta where STARS has bases.

"Part of it is some of the challenges that we faced in that last few years since we've been here," said Rock.

"I think as the public becomes more aware, and as people become more confident in STARS, you are going to see that those donations are going to increase."

STARS touts improved safety

The air ambulance service is touting changes to equipment, training and reporting structure to assure Manitobans that many previous safety concerns have been addressed.

An expert review ordered by the province criticized crew training and equipment, particularly in the area of managing airways.

Toddler Morgan Moar Campbell was left brain damaged in May 2013 after his breathing tube became dislodged after a STARS flight.

Dr. Doug Martin, the STARS base's medical director, says there's new equipment on board the helicopter and enhanced training that will address some issues with airways. 

"An oxygen monitor that monitors the flow of oxygen from tanks into the ventilator and would alert us to an abnormality there," he said.

STARS base medical director Dr. Doug Martin says new equipment and different protocols are in place to address issues related to oxygen delivery. (CBC)
"We are using different regulators on our oxygen tanks which have an intrinsic alarm function in them."

He added, "If you look through our policy and procedures binder, you'll see different protocols in place reflecting best evidence and best practice."

STARS crews achieved a 100 per cent success rate with airway management this past year, according to Martin. 

The service faced a number of restrictions on the transfers it could perform. Those have been lifted by Manitoba Health, but it still cannot transport children under the age of 12 between medical facilities.

New relationship with WRHA

Rock says STARS wants to move forward. She points to a new relationship within the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority with hope. The province transferred oversight of its agreement with STARS to the health authority in August last year.

"It's enabled us to be closer to our partners in the health-care system," she said. "It's going really well."

Helen Clark, chief operating officer of emergency response and patient transport with the WRHA, said although the service is expensive, it is essential to use STARS to get advanced life-saving skills to parts of the province where it's needed.

"I want to demonstrate to the citizens of Manitoba that STARS is truly integrating with the health-care system," said Clark.

"They are a partner with us. We are working very well together."


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