Rescue helicopter shake up could affect Whitianga based helicopter service
Plans for a nationwide rescue helicopter shake-up could see the Whitianga based rescue helicopter service changed or discontinued.
On 26 March, the Ministry of Health issued a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) in terms of which interested parties can tender to operate an air ambulance service in one or more of three regions in New Zealand.
The RFP is stipulating that air ambulance services have to be provided across the three regions from a list of 14 bases. The existing helicopter bases in Whitianga, Rotorua, Taupo and Te Anau are excluded from the list.
The RFP was issued after cabinet approved a business case, 'Reconfiguration of the National Air Ambulance Service', early last month.
It’s possible that the tenders can be awarded to overseas companies/organisations.
Although the Coromandel is in the Waikato DHB region, the air ambulance service on the Peninsula is provided by the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. The rescue helicopter base in Whitianga is owned by the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust.
Andrew Inder, the Ministry of Health’s community and ambulance manager, said in a written statement that no decision has as yet been made on where any rescue helicopters will be based, but rescue helicopter coverage around the New Zealand will continue, including the Coromandel, the North Island’s central plateau and Te Anau.
“One thing agreed by all those involved in providing, funding, organising or using these services is the importance of making improvements that achieve better outcomes for patients requiring air ambulance helicopter services.
“Air ambulances operate on a similar basis to road ambulance services, with fundraising by local communities critical to their sustainability. In 2016, the Ministry, ACC, and district health boards provided approximately 63 per cent of national service funding for air ambulances, with the remaining 37 per cent raised by local communities.”
Walter Russell, chairman of the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust, said they were completely blindsided by the RFP. “We had no idea that this was coming,” he said. “I also take issue with what Andrew Inder said. The RFP doesn’t give any indication that the list of 14 bases where the rescue helicopters are going to be based is up for discussion. It looks like a done deal to me.
“I also fail to see how patients on the Coromandel will get, in Mr Inder’s words, ‘better outcomes’ when we don’t have a rescue helicopter based in Whitianga. We already have a very good helicopter, with an even better one to come later this year. How any so-called ‘reconfiguration’ of the air ambulance service across New Zealand will provide us with improved clinical support, is beyond me. The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust crews are some of the very best in the industry. What I can see is that we’ll be ending up with worse clinical care as it will take a rescue helicopter longer to reach an emergency on the Peninsula. If we lose our rescue helicopter base in Whitianga, lives will be lost.
“And I don’t buy the statement that the government funds rescue helicopter operations across New Zealand to the tune of 63 per cent. My understanding is that the government is providing no funding to any of the existing rescue helicopter operators, including the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. All the government is doing is paying for services provided by the operators.
“I also understand that government payments make up only about 50 per cent of the income of the rescue helicopter operators. The rest is self-generated through sponsorships and community fundraising activities.
“That brings me to another thing. The RFP is structured so that community fundraising and sponsorships can continue. I can’t see how anyone on the Coromandel Peninsula will continue to support an air ambulance service that’s not based in Whitianga and that’s operated by an overseas company. If a commercial enterprise ends up operating a rescue helicopter service, all fundraising will be clean profit for the enterprise.
“Closure of our rescue helicopter base in Whitianga means we’ll be going back 10 years.”