Huge Spike In Gozo Air Ambulance Cost: Is Any Price Too Much For A Faster Emergency Service?

Taxpayer costs for Gozo's helicopter ambulance services have shot up by over 39 times

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The Gozo Hospital's air ambulance - Photo: Facebook

Nationalist MP Chris Said has claimed that that a Gozitan heart attack patient recently died because faults in Gozo's air ambulance meant he couldn't be transferred to Mater Dei in time. Although the claims have been denied by Steward Health Care, the US company which runs the Gozo hospital, Said's claims have triggered an internal inquiry and have raised questions about the helicopter service itself.

Introduced in February 2016 as part of the government’s then public-private partnership deal with Vitals Global Healthcare, the air ambulance seemed like a clear upgrade for Gozo’s emergency services. No longer would patients in Gozo have to wait for the army to dispatch a helicopter from Malta to the Gozo hospital but the hospital would have its very own helicopter, available at the Xemxija Heliport whenever it is needed.

Yet the new service has come at a significant cost to taxpayers.

Whereas the AFM service used to cost the Health Ministry €800 per trip between Mater Dei and the Gozo Hospital, a leaked part of the Vitals concession shows the public is forking out €1 million a year for the new air ambulance.

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AFM helicopters used to ferry emergency patients from Gozo to Mater Dei

The difference in costs is significant. Data provided to Lovin Malta by Steward Health Care, the US health giant which replaced Vitals as the concessionaire earlier this year, shows that 82 patients have used the air ambulance since it commenced operations in February 2016, an average of 32 patients a year. Parliamentary data from several years back is consistent with these numbers.

Crunch the numbers and that’s €31,250 per trip, 39 times more expensive than the average AFM trip and €5,000 more expensive than the AFM’s air ambulance services used to cost the state every year. Although the cost to the taxpayer has shot up so significantly, Steward insists it is unfair to compare the two scenarios.

"There can be no price tag on saving people’s lives and this air ambulance has significantly reduced travel time from Gozo to Mater Dei," a Steward spokesperson told Lovin Malta.

A Steward spokesperson told Lovin Malta that the annual €1 million subsidy is poured wholly into maintenance and fuel costs, salaries for the aircraft’s six full-time crew and other related expenses.

And she said this has been money well-spent, with travel time between Gozo and Mater Dei slashed from an average three hours in the past to one hour now

“In the past, a medical team would need to leave Mater Dei for the Luqa Airbase, since the AFM aircraft was not stationed in Gozo, thus significant time would have lapsed before it got to Gozo and travelled back to Malta with the patient. Today, in good weather conditions, we are averaging an 8-minute flight time, and have been successful in transferring a patient from Gozo General Hospital to Mater Dei Hospital in 50 minutes, which is quite significant when you consider that this includes two ambulance transportations and a flight across the Gozo Channel.”

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The air ambulance was unavailable for former Gozo Minister Anton Refalo

Moreover, Steward's spokesperson said that AFM helicopters were not always available for emergency transfers and that there were actually cases in the past where patients had to be transferred to Mater Dei via the much slower ferry.

Yet Chris Said is contesting this viewpoint, arguing not only that the previous air ambulance service was fast and efficient but that Gozitan patients are not getting their money's worth out of the current service.

“The AFM helicopter used to take around 15 minutes to fly from the army’s headquarters in Luqa and it used to land right outside the Gozo hospital so I wouldn’t even say the current service is faster,” he said. “Moreover, there is no other helicopter on standby for when the air ambulance is unavailable.”

This second part of the argument was contracted by Steward, who confirmed it contacts the AFM to send a helicopter over when a patient needs to be transferred to Mater Dei at the same time as the air ambulance is down for maintenance.

However, it said this back-up has only ever been used on one occasion, in February this year. Lovin Malta is reliably informed from separate sources that the unfortunate patient in this case was none other than Labour MP and former Gozo Minister Anton Refalo.

The air ambulance requires regular maintenance, including an annual one that lasts between three to four weeks.

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In addition, there may be additional ‘out of phase’ inspections, where life-limited components such as the gearbox need to be inspected or replaced after their utilisation limit is reached.

“Such utilisation limit might not always coincide with the above maintenance program schedule, however we will always try to coincide these with the ultimate aim of reducing overall downtime,” a Steward spokesperson said. “Both the out of phase as well as calendar scheduled inspections can be moved to a small degree, for operational or convenience requirements. For example last month’s maintenance was a combination of a 90 days, 120 days and some out of phase inspections.”

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The air ambulance was unavailable for former Gozo Minister Anton Refalo

But which version of events is true?

While Steward is painting a rosy picture of the situation, Chris Said said he has information that would essentially expose the healthcare giant as a liar.

According to Said, a Gozitan patient recently suffered a heart attack but couldn’t be transported to Mater Dei in time because of a fault to the air ambulance. The MP said several people who were at the hospital at the time, including hospital workers, have personally called him to back his version of events.

However, Steward is insisting this was not the case and that the patient wasn’t transferred to Mater Dei because a clinical decision was taken to stabilise him in the Gozo Hospital before sending him on the helicopter.

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PN MP Chris Said has claimed a Gozitan patient couldn't be instantly transferred to Mater Dei because of a fault to the air ambulance

According to Steward, the patient showed clear signs of recovery that afternoon, putting an end to the need to transfer him to Mater Dei. However, he suffered a second heart attack that same afternoon, was transferred to Mater Dei and died there.

“Certain people never learn before making statements and allegations without making sure that their information is genuine,” the Gozo Hospital’s CEO Joseph Fenech said. “Their primary objective is to create harm just to score political points.”

In a statement yesterday, Health Minister Chris Fearne said he has ordered his permanent secretary to investigate the case before taking an official stand.

And this inquiry could well determine the fate of the air ambulance service itself. If the emergency service has markedly improved for the Gozitan community, then it could certainly justify the large sums of money spent on it, but if the air ambulance is actually creating even more headaches for patients, then that’s another story…

Do you think the air ambulance is worth the extra cost to the public?

READ NEXT: We Spoke To The Man Who Made A Killing Off Vitals Deal And This Is How It Went

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Written By

Tim Diacono

Tim Diacono tends to clam up when asked to describe himself. You can contact him on timdiacono@lovinmalta.com

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