Rifle lands CareFlight helicopter service
Patients in western Garfield County and elsewhere who sustain serious injuries or need pressing specialized treatment beyond the scope of local hospitals will soon have a quicker option for being transported to a larger medical center.
CareFlight, a nonprofit air transport service run by St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, is establishing fixed-based services at the Rifle Garfield County Airport. The move is part of a greater effort by CareFlight to optimize efficiency by basing operations in areas with the greatest need.
“In a nutshell, it’s operating efficiency and response time, and Rifle was just an area that statistically indicates … a great fixed-based location,” said Teri Cavanagh, marketing and communications director for St. Mary’s.
That is comforting news for those patients in need of air transport, said Stacy Pemberton, chief nursing officer at Grand River Health.
In 2015, Grand River Hospital transferred about 300 patients to facilities with more services, Pemberton said, noting that not all of those are due to critical trauma. Currently, those needing air transportation have to wait for services coming from elsewhere, primarily Grand Junction since St. Mary’s — which claims to be the largest medical center between Denver and Salt Lake City — is typically the destination.
Other air transport services, including Classic Air Medical, which started operations at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs in April, also are used.
“It’s better for us because for those patients who need air medical transport, the response time is going to be that much sooner. So that’s a good thing,” Pemberton said.
In approving a land lease and operating agreement that will allow CareFlight to operate at the Rifle airport, Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky on Monday called the arrival of CareFlight “a big deal” for Rifle and the airport, which is owned by the county.
Services are expected to start Sept. 1, according to Pemberton.
CareFlight is using two different concepts to operate more efficiently. One is known as an advanced staging area, which equates to a location the helicopter can easily land to transport patients. The other is known as fixed-based operations, which are areas that can serve as a helicopter base because of the presence of crews and the ability to fuel up the helicopter.
The Rifle Garfield County Airport will house a fixed-based operation, including one helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350 B3, currently based in Grand Junction. The presence of the helicopter could change in the future, depending on the demand for services, but for the time being it will likely stay in Rifle because that is where the need is, Cavanagh said.
While that benefit will be felt by those needing medical air transport, including patients at Grand River, neither the hospital district nor other local agencies will be on the hook for the services.
That makes the new fixed-based operation different than a 2015 joint venture between St. Mary’s and Montrose Memorial Hospital, which added another helicopter in Montrose.
St. Mary’s is overseeing the expansion in Rifle because, as Cavanagh said, that is what’s needed to best serve customers.
Also, since CareFlight is a nonprofit, the cost to patients is generally less than for-profit services, which pass on costs to the insurance company, according to Cavanagh, who said an average cost is difficult to calculate, since it depends on the patient’s insurance plan.
“It’s good for patients. It’s good for insurance companies because the cost is lower,” Cavanagh said. “It’s a win-win all the way around.”
Perhaps equally important, the new fixed-based operation could represent an open door for future collaboration between local care providers and CareFlight, Pemberton said.
Critical ground transportation that could be used when air transport is not necessary would be a huge boost for patients locally. Grand River currently uses TransCare Ambulance for that service, but it is not available 24-hours a day, Pemberton said.
CareFlight added an ambulance to its program in 2013. It is intended to serve referral customers who do not need air transport but require a higher level of care. The ambulance is based in Grand Junction.
Cavanagh said she was uncertain about a future expansion of the ground service, but said landing the fixed-based operation is a first step in locating services in Rifle.
“Hopefully this affords more opportunity in the future to our patient population,” Pemberton said.