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A fight for flight rights: Sanford Air, Spirit Lifeline compete for Stark Co. medical air contract

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Spirit Lifeline’s air ambulance lands at an oil industry event in South Heart on May 14.

Another air ambulance service has pitched its membership plan to Stark County.

Sanford Air Transportation explained its plan Tuesday for Stark County commissioners at their monthly meeting.

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The membership programs aim to lower out-of-pocket costs for patients that use the air ambulances — the costs can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

The Sanford Air membership would cost the county $117,000 annually.

Competitor Spirit Lifeline’s proposal, meanwhile, costs about $11,000 more at $128,812. Spirit Lifeline made its pitch at the commission’s May meeting.

But Spirit Lifeline's helicopter is based in Dickinson — eliminating the 39-minute flight Air Sanford would have to make to get to town from where it’s based in Bismarck.

“Are we not better off having something based here?” Commissioner Jay Elkin asked. “You don’t have that many minutes in a critical situation.”

Sanford Air Transportation executive director Mike Christianson predicted that at some point in time, Sanford Air would base an aircraft farther west than Bismarck.

The Sanford crew includes four fixed-wing and four rotor wing aircraft, plus a full crew of pilots, mechanics and paramedics, Christianson said.

Commissioners brought up concern that that service may be biased and bring patients to Sanford in Bismarck even if it’s not in their best interest — but Christianson emphasized that the decision of where to fly a patient is made by the patient and a consulting physician, not the flight crew.

“The patient and the physician drive where” the patient goes, Christianson said, despite the service being owned and operated by Sanford Health.

Elkin said after the presentation that he thinks the county has a need for the air service, and brought up having a public meeting to discuss the proposals with citizens.

He and Commissioner Duane Wolf said the county hasn’t decided whether to commit to a medical helicopter service, let alone which one it would pick. They don’t yet know where the money would come from.

Christianson said while Sanford Air doesn’t typically approach counties with the membership, he is “100 percent confident that we would fulfill our commitment to your county.”