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Spirit Lifeline takes off: Officials: Medical helicopter service pulls out of North Dakota

Pilot Robert Fratti stands next to the Spirit Lifeline helicopter during a dedication ceremony July 10, 2013, at the Biesiot Activities Center. The medical helicopter based in Dickinson has stopped operations after just over a year in North Dakota. The helicopter had been based at the site of the new CHI St. Joseph's Hospital still under construction. (Press Photo by Dustin Monke)1 / 2
Press Photo by Dustin Monke A U-Haul truck is parked outside of the modular building Spirit Lifeline medical helicopter had been using as its Dickinson headquarters next to the helipad at CHI St. Joseph’s Hospital on Wednesday. Spirit Lifeline has announced that it is ending its services in North Dakota.2 / 2

Air ambulance company Spirit Lifeline is pulling its service out of North Dakota after only a year of operation.

An email went out Wednesday to customers announcing that the company, which began operating in Dickinson last July, was ending its medical flights in the state.

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Reid Vogel, marketing director of Spirit Lifeline’s Texas-based parent company Med-Trans, said that the “incredibly difficult” decision to end services in the state came down to low utilization and low reimbursement levels from insurance companies.

“We feel bad about it,” he said. “We tried everything. We looked at every opportunity, looked at various organizations, other opportunities with oil companies.

“Things just weren’t working out.”

The reimbursement Spirit Lifeline got from insurance companies in North Dakota was lower than it is in other states, and too low to sustain business here, Vogel said.

Med-Trans is a member of AirMedNetwork, the country’s largest air medical membership network with about 250 subsidiaries, the closest of which is in Scottsbluff, Neb. The company will work with Spirit Lifeline employees impacted by the closure to transition them to other air medical providers, Vogel said.

Customers who purchased a membership with AirMedNetwork can choose to remain covered in other markets around the country or receive a refund.

With nearby competitor Sanford AirMed in Bismarck, which is not part of the AirMedNetwork, Vogel said he believes citizens in North Dakota “will be taken care of.”

Spirit Lifeline had been in talks with the Stark County Commission to set up a community membership to cover medical air service for Stark County residents. A special meeting had been scheduled for later this month to discuss options with both Spirit Lifeline and Sanford AirMed. Other counties, including Bowman and Billings, have signed on to similar plans.

Stark County Commissioner Jay Elkin said he was contacted by local Spirit Lifeline representatives Tuesday and said he found the decision to end services “sad.”

“I really believed that this region needed this type of service,” he said. “Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it work financially.”

Med-Trans had been leasing space for a helipad and crew quarters next to the new CHI St. Joseph’s Health hospital, currently under construction.

In a statement released Wednesday, CHI St. Joseph’s Health President Reed Reyman said the health-care provider “will immediately start the search for a community-based air ambulance service with which to partner.”

The organization was notified Wednesday of Med-Trans’ decision to immediately pull its services from the state, citing “lack of state funding for emergency services as factors in their decision,” according to the release.

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said that he was not aware of any representatives from Med-Trans or Spirit Lifeline approaching the state Legislature about subsidizing the air ambulance service.

“As far as the state being involved, I don’t know of anybody that’s been talked to about it,” he said, adding that emergency services will likely be talked about in upcoming legislative sessions.

“I would want to talk to all of the EMS providers in North Dakota before the state gets involved in something like that. I’m sure it will be a discussion point, especially if (Spirit Lifeline) came and left.”

Sanford AirMed is now the closest available service.  

“That’s really going to be our resort as of now,” Elkin said, noting that he is hopeful that the presence of a helipad at CHI St. Joseph’s Health will attract other air ambulance providers.

Asked where Spirit Lifeline’s decision leaves Stark County, he said, “I’m not sure.”