California Grand Jury Criticizes Mercy Air, County Policy

Lives are in danger because the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has delayed giving permission for a second air ambulance provider to operate in the county, according a blistering grand jury report issued this week.

But county officials and the one company that provides airborne medical service vehemently deny the accusations, saying the report, titled "Is Your Life at Risk," has serious inaccuracies.

They further deny that political pressure had anything to do with delaying a decision on a second air ambulance provider.

"To suggest that the Board of Supervisors would put any other consideration before that of the public's safety is outrageous and untrue," said board Chairman Bill Postmus' office in a written response released Friday afternoon. "The fact of the matter is that the county is doing its due diligence to make sure the people of the county are safe."

The report hints strongly that campaign contributions by Mercy Air, the sole air ambulance provider authorized to operate in the county, have influenced the board to keep out competition.

"If any company doing business in San Bernardino County is financially unstable, it is not the responsibility of the County Supervisors to protect them. The Board of Supervisors must be in the business of protecting the health and welfare of its citizens," the report stated. Mercy Air is politically active because the company has an obligation to keep politicians informed about issues affecting public safety, said Roy Cox, program manager for the Rialto-based company.

The questions raised about the second proposed air ambulance provider were legitimate and necessary, he said.

"I'm very concerned. I don't think this company meets the same standards," he said.

And he flatly denied that his company has made big donations and expects special treatment.

"That is so untrue," Cox said.

Mercy Air's parent company, Colorado-based Air Methods, did make contributions totaling about $3,000 to Postmus and $4,500 to Supervisor Dennis Hansberger between 2000 and 2003, but gave no money to Hansberger in 2004 and $150 to Postmus last year.

Further, the grand jury never contacted Mercy Air to get its side of the story, Cox said.

The county's top appointed official denied that business considerations had anything to do with the delay.

County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer said Friday he would look into why the issue has not been put back in front of the Board of Supervisors after it was delayed indefinitely in July.

"I don't think it has to do with protecting Mercy Air," he said.

The California City Fire Department in Kern County applied to the agency that oversees emergency services for a permit to provide air ambulance services in San Bernardino County.

The advantage for the department, located west of Kramer Junction, where Highways 395 and 58 cross, is that it would be able to bill patients for the service, said Virginia Hastings, executive director for the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency, or ICEMA.

The agency oversees emergency medical services in San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono counties.

The California City department can now respond under a mutual aid agreement, but it doesn't have to meet San Bernardino County's standards to do so, and it doesn't get reimbursed.

If it were to get a permit, that would mean its paramedics and drug inventory meet county standards, and they would have to be familiar with county procedures, Hastings said.

California City met all the requirements and a committee of emergency professionals voted 8-0, with the Mercy Air representative abstaining, to recommend that the Board of Supervisors give the fire department a permit.

The item went to the board June 21 and was postponed. When the issue appeared again July 12, it was postponed indefinitely.

"We really expected not a lot of questions because it had been so thoroughly reviewed," Hastings said.

Postmus' response alleges the grand jury report appears to be based largely on information provided by California City's fire chief.

A description of an April car crash with several people trapped near Kramer Junction in the grand jury report appears to be inaccurate, Uffer and Mercy Air's Cox said. The grand jury report said two Mercy Air helicopters were called first, when California City could have been there much more quickly.

Three helicopters were readily available and responded quickly to the incident, according to logs Uffer examined this week.

The California City fire chief was not available for comment Friday.

Postmus said in the statement that he has asked the emergency services agency to put California City higher on the dispatch list for incidents around Kramer Junction, Red Mountain --which is farther north on 395 -- and Barstow.

He said he asked the County Administrative Office during the summer to perform an independent review of California City's qualifications, and that the issue should be back in front of the board as soon as possible.

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.