Calstar Helicopter Rides Can Cost $10,000
Monterey Herald Staff Writer
A helicopter ambulance is often a lifesaver for victims of auto accidents, heart attacks, falls from cliffs, gunshot wounds or other sudden, life-threatening emergencies.
But be prepared for some sticker shock. A flight to the hospital can cost $10,000 or more, and insurance won’t always cover it.
Calstar – California Shock Trauma Air Rescue – will fly any patient in an emergency, said Lisa Abeloe, a registered nurse and director of the air ambulance company’s Central Coast/Southern region.
“Nobody wants to have to have us to transport them,” she said, “but when we show up they’re happy to see us. We never know their ability to pay before transport.
“If a person can go by ground ambulance, it’s less expensive, and we encourage that.”
Air ambulance operations are costly, Abeloe said, and the price depends on the distance flown and the type of medical treatment needed enroute.
Much of the expense involves having the service available on standby at each of the nonprofit’s eight operating stations, maintaining the aircraft, training crew and pilots and other related expenses.
“You can pay well into the thousands of dollars,” Abeloe said.
But, she said, “we do have a large budget writeoff. We do assist patients in billing insurance or working out payment schedules. We are a Medicare and MediCal provider.”
Policyholders should check their medical or auto insurance to see if air ambulance flights are covered, Abeloe said.
But getting a patient to a hospital within the “golden hour” of a traumatic injury, she said, can mean the difference between saving or losing a limb or a life.
Calstar’s helicopters cost upward of $1,000 an hour to operate, said pilot Sarah Sterns, who is based at Salinas Municipal Airport, where she flies the MD 902 Explorer with a crew of two flight nurses. Calstar5 in Salinas was established in April 2002 and serves Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and northern San Luis Obispo counties.
By law, she said, pilot shifts are limited to 14 hours. Calstar pilots work 12-hour shifts, which leaves two hours’ leeway for long missions.
Some days, Sterns said, crews just wait for something to happen. Other days, they may make several flights in one shift.
About half of the company’s pilots are former military members, drawn from all branches of the services, Abeloe said. Half were trained by private flight schools.
Sterns is a former military pilot who flew crews to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico before signing on with Calstar. She said she’s happy to be working in one place, where she can be part of the community, join volunteer groups and indulge her passion for mountain biking.
A typical Calstar pilot will have at least 5,000 hours of command pilot experience, Abeloe said. The two critical care nurses on board have experience in adult and pediatric hospital intensive care units and receive additional training from Calstar in use of on-board medical equipment, policies and procedures.
There is a helicopter mechanic at each of the eight flight bases, Abeloe said, and the aircraft are maintained on a rotating basis: Parts are replaced after a specific number of hours, whether they show signs of failure or not.
The company only does medical flights, she said, not law enforcement or rescue operations, and it operates under its own Federal Aviation Administration certificate, which makes it directly responsible for all aspects of flight operations and aircraft maintenance.
Calstar offers a membership of $40 per year for individuals and $45 for families, which covers the entire cost of a medical flight if needed.
For information, or to apply, call 888-207-5433 or see http://www.calstar.org .
Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416 or firstname.lastname@example.org .