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Wise supervisors table vote on Wellmont medevac request

Stephen Igo • Feb 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

WISE — The Wise County Board of Supervisors on Thursday tabled a vote until April on a request by Wellmont Health System to operate a new medevac helicopter service in the county.

Board Chairman Robert Adkins also appointed three supervisors to a “mediation” committee to attempt to resolve the aerial combat engaged between two of the region’s health provider giants, Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance.

Wings Air Rescue, affiliated with MSHA, has provided medevac services for 13 years to Wise County. From its base atop Jenkins Mountain, Ky., Wings can fly to an emergency situation anywhere in Wise County in as few as six minutes. Wellmont provides financial and medical personnel support to the Virginia State Police MedFlight-2 but is looking to establish a separate helicopter service operating out of Tri-Cities Regional Airport, Greeneville and Carter County.

Before supervisors took up the matter, MSHA or MSHA-affiliated officers of local hospitals said Wellmont One’s service is not needed, and Wings Air Rescue or MedFlight-2 can respond to a Wise County emergency faster than a Tennessee-based Wellmont outfit anyway.

Norton Community Hospital board member James Manicure told supervisors the NCH merger with MSHA last year strengthened the local hospital’s ability to serve the community. Manicure said he believes Wellmont’s request to supervisors was a camel’s nose under the tent maneuver.

“The bottom line is (Wellmont will) eventually put a port in Big Stone Gap (at Wellmont’s Lonesome Pine Hospital), and they want to come in the back door to do that,” Manicure said. Otherwise, he said “it doesn’t make any sense to cut the pie up any more if you’re already getting the services” Wings and MedFlight-2 provide.

Bob Spera, a board member of Wellmont’s Mountain View Medical Center in Norton, a pilot and the fixed-base operator of Lonesome Pine Airport in Wise, said Wings and MedFlight-2 are professional services. Spera said he is also a Coast Guard auxiliary officer, however, and worries about two medevac flight services getting overwhelmed during a disaster situation.

“This is where I see a possible rub. Incident command and control,” Spera said. “If we’re going to restrict someone from operating in the county, we’re really limiting ourselves.”

Tony Dingess, flight crew commander of Wings Air Rescue, countered that Wings maintains a fleet of four helicopters and two backup aircraft. MedFlight-2 has another on call and one backup chopper, and five other medevac helicopter services in Kentucky can swiftly fly into Wise County in case of a disaster.

Dingess and Manicure also mentioned basing a Wings helicopter at NCH. Manicure said that is just in the initial talking stages. Dingess urged supervisors to table the matter if they weren’t comfortable making a decision on Wellmont’s request on Thursday.

Roger Viers, a financial planner in Wise and a member of the Mountain View Regional board of directors, said the United States was founded on a few guiding principles, “and one of them is competition.” Viers said there was “no need to abandon this principle for air rescue services.”

Anita Ashley, Wellmont’s assistant manager of air rescue services, said it is “not true” that Wellmont’s true goal is to swipe patients by swooping a helicopter onto an emergency scene and whisking the patient away to a Wellmont facility in Wise County, Bristol or Kingsport.

Ashley also questioned why NCH and Wings were suddenly engaged in talks to base a medevac port at NCH “if it’s not needed” as opponents to Wellmont One were arguing.

Supervisor Ronnie Shortt of Pound made the motion to table the issue in order to give supervisors more time to study all sides of the matter. Supervisor Robby Robbins of Tacoma seconded the motion, amending it to be tabled until April. The motion passed unanimously.

Adkins then appointed a “working committee” of Shortt, Robbins and J.H. Rivers of Big Stone Gap to “assist these two entities (and) act as mediators and moderators or whatever it takes to achieve resolution and satisfaction.”

Vice Chair Virginia Meador asked Adkins what the committee is “supposed to do?” Adkins told Meador the committee won’t make policy but serve in a manner “to assist in whatever way they can to have a resolution to this matter.”

Afterward, NCH spokeswoman Lori Stuedemann said the board’s decision to table the matter until April was “not a victory or a defeat” for either side, and applauded the board’s desire to educate itself further on the issues before making a decision.

In other matters, opponents of a proposed coal-fired power plant to be built at the Virginia City site of St. Paul presented their arguments against the project. The board has been wholeheartedly in favor of Dominion’s $1.8 billion, 585-megawatt project from the get-go, citing the significant economic boost to the county and the region.

The board took no action on a resolution to urge state lawmakers to cap payday lending interest rates at 36 percent and approved up to $7,000 to provide for a stables at the county animal shelter. County Administrator Glen “Skip” Skinner refers to the new addition as “the pony pokey.”

The addition to the animal shelter will temporarily house steeds, cows, goats and other farm animals that occasionally stray from their home pastures or might be seized from neglectful owners.

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