SEBRING - After 19 years of flying thousands of sick and injured patients, Aeromed almost lost its license to fly out of Highlands County.
Aeromed, owned by Tampa General Hospital, had notified Air Methods that a different helicopter service would be used. In turn, Air Methods applied for the air ambulance license that it jointly held with Aeromed.
EMS Director Harvey Craven sided with Air Methods, since the Colorado company applied first. The Highlands County commissioners disagreed at Tuesday's meeting, granting Aeromed the license to continue flying.
Brian Hess, president of Highlands Regional Medical Center, sided with Air Methods. Tim Cook, CEO of Florida Hospital Heartland, took the opposite side with Aeromed.
Had Aeromed not change vendors, said Deana Nelson, executive vice president of Tampa General, its license would not have been questioned. However, County Attorney Ross Macbeth took the position that the license was jointly held by both companies.
At the meeting, Aeromed suggested it is a local company. Ted Edgar, an Aeromed pilot, lives at Spring Lake and owns a business in Lorida. His wife is a Florida Hospital nurse. "This is my town. You're my neighbors. I want the best service for you."
Aeromed has been here for two decades, Edgar said, and it has leased helicopters from several vendors. Air Methods has "never provided any kind of medical care in this county. The plan is that they will provide it in the future.
If their child was on a patient on an emergency medical flight, she asked, which would Edgar choose? "I want the guys with the blue suits," she said. Dozens of nurses and paramedics wore their royal blue jumpsuits to Tuesday's county commission meeting.
Lori Duppenphaler, an Aeromed flight nurse, said, "They have been the greatest employer I have ever had." U.S. News & World Report rated Tampa General as the best hospital in Florida, she said.
Air Methods's 44 letters of support were called into question by two people, including Richard Hetherton, human resources director for Lykes Brothers. He was told that Aeromed was leaving the county and that Air Methods was applying for the contract.
Dr. Hinda Green, who lives in Sebring, said she had worked a shift in Louisiana, then drove 2.5 hours to board a plane in New Orleans and fly here to endorse Aeromed.
Jeff Bogue, an Aeromed flight paramedic who lives in Brandon, is stationed at the Sebring airport. "Therefore, this is my community. I treat every patient like it was my father, mother, son or daughter. If you go with Air Methods, you'll never get that, you're going to get a large national corporation that's going to treat you like a number."
"I wish we didn't have to make this decision," said Commissioner Greg Harris, who sided with Hess because of Highlands Regional Medical Center.
What's the downside of approving more than one company, Commissioner Don Elwell asked.
"That's certainly an option," Craven said. But both companies agreed that in the future, there will be enough business for only one.
"Tampa General has a good track record," said Commissioner Jim Brooks, a previous EMS director. "All things being equal, I'm going to have to stick with them."
Commissioner Ron Handley said his family was involved with three medical flights to Tampa. He agreed with another speaker, who said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Richie and Elwell agreed, and Aeromed prevailed on a 4-1 vote.