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Life Flight transports a patient from Grande Ronde Hospital using an Air Methods aircraft. Beginning Aug. 1, Air Methods will start its own air ambulance operation in La Grande competing with Life Flight. (Observer file photo)
Air Methods to open doors on Aug. 1
Air medical transport provider Life Flight Network will have a competitor joining the La Grande area Aug. 1.
Air Methods, one of the largest publicly traded air medical service operators in the country, plans to begin operations in La Grande and in several other Oregon cities in a little over one month.
“We want to provide customers a choice,” said Air Methods Regional Director Larry Hall. “Sometimes needs and demands are higher. At those times, we’d like to be able to step up and meet those demands.”
Operating as Air Life, Air Methods will employ 13 full-time staff members at a base on Smith Loop Road near the Northeast hangar of the Union County Airport.
The move comes amidst a legal battle between Life Flight and Air Methods. A Marion County judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday for Life Flight against Air Methods in a case involving breach of contract. That contract, under which Air Methods provides aircraft and some staffing for Life Flight, will end July 31.
La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer said he is not yet sure how having two air ambulance providers will work. Currently EMTs call Life Flight directly for service or Grande Ronde Hospital arranges with them for transfers.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Weimer said. “In some respects it’d be good to have a second aircraft here.”
He said there have been occasions when Life Flight is in the middle of a transport when the aircraft is needed, so another aircraft must be brought in from elsewhere.
“I think the place where it could impact us is the membership program,” Weimer said.
FireMed Plus is a supplemental insurance program that covers ground and air ambulance services, and partners with Life Flight.
Hall said Air Methods does not participate in the FireMed program, but that Air Methods “will make every effort to maximize the amount the insurance pays.”
With that exception, Hall said Air Methods’ billing practices are no different than a not-for-profit provider such as Life Flight.
Grande Ronde Hospital business will continue as normal, said the hospital’s Community Relations Manager Mardi Ford.
“We have an exclusive relationship with Life Flight Network to transport patients out of Grande Ronde Hospital and that’s not going to be affected by this change,” she said.
Life Flight isn’t going anywhere, said Erick Borland, the network’s marketing director.
“Life Flight Network does not foresee having any layoffs due to increased competition in the La Grande area,” he said. “In addition, a majority of the pilots currently working for Air Methods Corp., on behalf of Life Flight Network, have made a decision to stay with Life Flight Network when Air Method’s contract comes to a close.”
On Aug. 1, the vendor for all Life Flight helicopter bases will be TriState CareFlight. The network plans to bring 15 new AgustaWestland 119Kx helicopters to bases in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. The La Grande base should receive its new helicopter in mid-July, Borland said.
Hall said Air Life will operate a Eurocopter AS350.
Air Life officials said the legal process with Life Flight is ongoing and that Air Methods is fully cooperating.