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Josephine County drops Mercy Flights

Mercy Flights' 66-year run of being the main provider of air ambulance service to Josephine County appears to be coming to an end.

On Tuesday, the board of directors for the local 911 agency ditched a controversial rotation policy and is now making a new ambulance service called Oregon Lifeguard the "first out" option.

The change is expected to take effect this week.

"In Josephine County, we're going to use Oregon Lifeguard," 911 board Chairman Jim Polk announced after the meeting.

The decision comes at the counsel of county emergency services medical director Martin Hill and calls for local fire, rescue and ambulance organizations to use the closest available air ambulance when needed — and that will usually be Oregon Lifeguard, which is based at the Grants Pass airport.

The new directives "are in keeping with national standards of care," Hill said, in a letter to the agency.

The diminished role for Medford-based Mercy Flights comes with some reluctance from agencies that have built long-term relationships with the company, which began in 1949 and has 1,300 subscribers in Josephine County.

Having a helicopter closer than Medford, however, is seen as a benefit to local trauma patients in need of immediate care.

Oregon Lifeguard, a division of Utah-based Classic Air Medical, came on the scene last fall and subsequently trained with local emergency services providers. In December, Hill ordered local agencies to use the closest air ambulance, but he deferred his order until training with the new company was complete and mapping was done.

In the meantime, a rotation system was eventually put into practice, with calls for service alternating between the two competitors.

That practice came under scrutiny last month after a man suffered head trauma in a Feb. 24 fall from a roof on Saratoga Way, about two miles from the airport.

Instead of using an Oregon Lifeguard helicopter at the airport, dispatchers summoned Mercy Flights from Medford, 30 miles away, because Mercy was next up on the rotation.

A medic deemed it too long to wait for Mercy and the patient wound up being taken by ground ambulance to a Medford hospital.

Although the patient survived, Hill warned the 911 board that the rotation policy delayed the patient's arrival at a hospital — a delay that can be crucial in some medical emergencies.

Newly released maps show that virtually all of Josephine County is closer to Grants Pass than Medford.

With the new maps in hand, Hill said he expects 911 dispatchers to consider Oregon Lifeguard as the "first out" choice, and to call on Mercy Flights only when weather, maintenance or other issues preclude Oregon Lifeguard from responding.

Some details remain, primarily what to do with patients who prefer Mercy Flights. Polk said the issue is being researched to determine the law.

One fear is that a Mercy Flights subscriber could get billed by Oregon Lifeguard if forced to use Oregon Lifeguard. A flight from Grants Pass to Medford costs nearly $23,000, according to Oregon Lifeguard rates in effect earlier this year.

However, Oregon Lifeguard has stated it will honor Mercy Flights subscriptions, according to Hill.