STARS to take over air ambulance services in Manitoba

STARS will be taking over air ambulance services from the province's Lifeflight program starting this December, Shared Health announced Thursday. 

Responsibilities will be transferred from province's Lifeflight program starting in December

A Lifeflight air ambulance plane. Manitoba's air ambulance service will be taken over by STARS, Shared Health announced Thursday. (CBC)

STARS will be taking over air ambulance services from the province's Lifeflight program, Manitoba Shared Health announced Thursday.

Lifeflight, the province's 24-hour air ambulance program, responds to the most critically ill or injured patients in areas beyond a 200-kilometre radius of Winnipeg, accounting for about 400-500 calls per year.

In the last two years, critical care medical air services have been provided in the province by a combination of Lifeflight staff, STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service), and Shared Health transport teams. 

The province issued a request for proposals in July of 2018 to privatize its air service's Lifeflight air ambulance and general transport services.

That led to some Lifeflight medical staff threatening to quit. Last year, some Lifeflight doctors refused to board the private planes Manitoba has relied on for its air ambulance service.

Moving forward, STARS — a non-profit organization funded by individuals, organizations, businesses and governments — will take over the staffing and operational responsibilities of Lifeflight, with Lifeflight staff and physicians providing services in the interim.

The transition is set to take place no sooner than Dec. 10 of this year, according to a news release from Shared Health.

"Together, these teams have ensured ongoing and consistent availability of the Lifeflight service, even with the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic," Shared Health chief executive officer Brock Wright said in the release.

"In the early months of the pandemic, gaps in Lifeflight physician coverage were covered by STARS, demonstrating our ability to build upon our existing partnership to further stabilize staffing and ensure Manitobans have access to this service for years to come."

Calls for air ambulance services will continue to go through Shared Health's call centre. 

Responsibility for the program was transferred from Manitoba Health to Shared Health, the organization that co-ordinates health care in the province, last fall.

Shared Health oversees the province's other annual 7,000-8,000 calls for air ambulance, including all non-critical calls, transfers between facilities, child health, neonatal, and out-of-province transfers. 

Union, Opposition criticize move

The president of the Manitoba Nurses Union said her organization is deeply concerned about the privatization of the air ambulance program. 

"We feel this move proves that all along, government only wanted to weaken and eventually outsource a service that's of vital importance to rural Manitobans," Darlene Jackson said in a statement. 

"While nurses value the services that STARS provides, no details have been provided about how STARS will be capable of managing this significant expansion in its services while also improving patient care."

Uzoma Asagwara, the health critic for the Opposition NDP, also criticized the move, calling it alarming. 

"It will mean longer wait times for people in crisis and poorer quality care," Asagwara said.

With files from Erin Brohman and Ian Froese


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