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Mercy Flight Central to end airplane program in the north country Monday

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It appears there is not enough room in the skies over Northern New York for dueling air medical services.

Because of the increased competition between Mercy Flight Central and LifeNet, the Marcellus-based nonprofit Mercy Flight will offer its last fixed-wing flight in the north country on Monday.

Mercy Flight President and CEO Neil G. Snedeker said calls for the nonprofit’s interfacility transfer of patients via its small airplane plunged when LifeNet, a for-profit company, moved into the north country last year.

“Because we lost so many calls because of LifeNet, we couldn’t just break even,” Mr. Snedeker said. “It’s the price of doing business. Here’s the reality — we used to do, since 2004, about 70 airplane transports per year, and about 75 percent of that was in the north country. There just wasn’t enough call volume. When LifeNet came in last June, our fixed-wing call volume dropped dramatically.”

Mr. Snedeker said Mercy Flight Central’s base price of $9,700 with a $50-per-loaded-mile fee for an average fixed-wing flight for an interfacility transfer from Samaritan Medical Center to Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, was better for patients, as it was significantly less than a $30,000 to $40,000 bill from LifeNet for helicopter service for the same distance.

“The cheaper for us to fly the airplane, the cheaper it is for patients,” Mr. Snedeker said.

As of Monday, Mercy Flight Central will do only helicopter transfers in the north country. The number of Mercy Flight helicopter runs also has decreased since LifeNet arrived; Mercy Flight used to handle about 70 helicopter flights per year, but is down to about 20.

Since Mercy Flight Central’s turbo-prop airplane began service in 2004, Mr. Snedeker said, the agency received many requests for the transfer of patients from the north country to Syracuse, Burlington, Vt., New York City, Boston, Cleveland or Columbus, Ohio.

When in use, the nonprofit’s helicopter is out of service for about six hours, counting travel time from the Marcellus base to the north country, then to a hospital and finally the return to Marcellus. More time equates to more money; Mr. Snedeker said it’s cheaper to fly the airplane than the helicopter, because the plane can cover longer distances more quickly.

Mercy Flight charges a $13,995 base rate with an average of $119 per loaded mile per helicopter flight. LifeNet’s base rate alone is more than $20,000, and its per-mile fee is about $200 in Northern New York.

Mr. Snedeker said free enterprise allows for competition, but he claimed LifeNet, which opened bases at Watertown, Potsdam and Fort Drum in 2012, has suffocated Mercy Flight, which could not compete.

LifeNet’s medical helicopters were brought to the north country by Air Methods, Englewood, Colo. Air Methods spokeswoman Tracey Budz said LifeNet establishes bases only in communities where “we have been invited and there is demand for the service.”

“Air Methods is always evaluating opportunities for new bases where there is an unmet need,” Ms. Budz said.

Although Mr. Snedeker said he fears LifeNet will circle around Mercy Flight’s bases near Utica, Canandaigua and Marcellus, Ms. Budz said there are no firm plans to host a Syracuse LifeNet base at this time.

LifeNet has had job postings for positions in Dexter, Potsdam, Fort Drum and Syracuse, where there is no base, throughout the past two months.

Mr. Snedeker said additional LifeNet bases in the proximity of Mercy Flight Central bases could further limit what the nonprofit can do.

Ms. Budz said that from June 1, 2012, through May 31, LifeNet’s Watertown and Potsdam bases have received 629 requests for service.

Low call volume isn’t just a Mercy Flight Central problem. LifeNet officials have said low call volume is one contributor to the corporation’s hefty price tag for flights. LifeNet experiences a lower number of calls through its Northern New York bases, compared with other areas throughout the nation.

Each LifeNet base also is staffed, is equipped with critical-care supplies and has other related costs. Air Methods spends $1.5 million to $2 million per base, per year.

Mercy Flight Central’s cost is $1.4 million, Mr. Snedeker said.

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